The benefits of mindfulness meditation for business leaders are increasingly appreciated and confirmed by empirical research. Executives and high performing professionals increasingly use meditation to manage stress, maintain strategic focus, enhance cognitive performance, promote emotional intelligence, and improve interpersonal relationships. Meditation programs are increasingly offered in the workplace to promote these benefits. Potential risks of mindfulness programs can be avoided and advantages enhanced when workers engage voluntarily and proactively in the process.
However, mindfulness meditation is usually a freestanding offering in workplaces and not tied to the user’s specific leadership development challenges. Mindfulness meditation has not yet been rigorously integrated into leadership development programs and executive coaching. These kinds of development programs can help emerging leaders to identify — and overcome — their limiting beliefs, behavior patterns, and interpersonal difficulties. Such programs can help them to develop new skill sets including the capacity to think strategically and motivate others.
Similarly, executive coaching helps individual clients to develop essential skill sets to manage direct reports, communicate more effectively, develop sound strategic plans, and implement action plans for success. But since most executive coaches and leadership development specialists are not also specialists in applying mindfulness strategies, important opportunities may be missed. While executives may benefit from pursuing meditation as a freestanding stress-management strategy, their development as vibrant leaders could be bolstered by vigorously integrating the two approaches.
When executive coaches and mindfulness specialists collaborate closely, they can help clients to identify their core challenges and focus in-depth on addressing those challenges in a synergistic fashion. They can hold clients accountable to commitments they’ve made to both processes. The executive coach can engage the client in dialogue about how mindfulness strategies (such as controlled breathing and guided imagery) are working in the service of leadership development and executive functioning.
Meanwhile, the mindfulness specialist can help the client to develop individually tailored meditation techniques that support the executive leadership goals (such as maintaining a calm, steady presence in essential meetings in the C-suite or with colleagues across the organization). The two processes can powerfully reinforce each other and promote enhanced quality of life, work performance, and leadership capacity. But that is only the case if the executive coach and mindfulness specialist maintain a healthy dialogue with one another.
In our practice, we work closely day-to-day as an executive coach/meditation specialist team. Together we have developed an integrative and bidirectional model of executive coaching and mindfulness coaching. We take the initiative to inform each other regularly about the specifics of the work we are doing with our shared clients. Our approaches are mutually reinforcing.
When the client achieves a relaxed state during meditation sessions via controlled breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (temporarily suspending cognition), he or she can then work on the mindset changes that are the focus of the executive coaching. These mindset changes are more attainable when they are worked on in a state of meditative relaxation. Conversely, relevant thoughts “bubbling up” in the client’s mind during meditation sessions are relevant to the tasks of the executive coaching and leadership development sessions. In some cases, we meet together with our clients to ensure that the goals and strategies are well aligned amongst all of us.
Here’s an example of the process with one of our shared clients. Steven has been a successful executive in the tech industry and recently began working with a start up company, at which point he experienced a major spike in his longstanding anxiety, obsessional work style, and profound worries about his health. The executive coaching work has aimed to transform his mindset from focusing on problems and roadblocks standing in the way of success, into focusing on interesting challenges and opportunities all around him. His capacity to reframe self-perceived problems as opportunities has deepened since he began to focus on this cognitive reframe not only during executive coaching sessions, but also during meditation and yoga sessions. At the same time, during those sessions my colleague noticed that he was expressing worries about his office set-up and daily work schedule. That information flowing from meditation and yoga sessions has helped to deepen the executive coaching process by identifying concrete, worthwhile tasks for him to pursue.
The benefits of a relaxed body state for executive coaching clients like Steven cannot be overestimated. Once Steven’s self-awareness expanded to include his breathing and his body state in general, he became more grounded, mentally focused, and capable of making significant changes. Deep breathing and somatic relaxation moderated his cognitive intensity, which empowered him to tolerate and transform stressful thoughts rather than being overwhelmed or detrimentally reactive to them. He thereby succeeded in achieving the executive coaching goals of transforming his self-perception from being riddled with problems to embracing wonderful new leadership challenges and opportunities for growth.
The synergy of executive coaching and mindfulness meditation is compelling. Meditation helps clients achieve a state of being in which they can think clearly about work-related stressors and goals. And when executives make positive mindset and behavior changes, they are better positioned to relax and achieve a meditative state — with all its inherent benefits. The two approaches continually deepen and bolster each other.
By carefully integrating executive coaching and mindfulness strategies in a single practice setting, we can help clients develop into more self-aware, grounded, emotionally intelligent, and effective leaders. Executive coaches, leadership trainers, and mindfulness specialists can form powerful partnerships in the service of an enhanced client experience. Rather than leaving to chance whether and how clients will engage in mindfulness meditation, executive coaches should consider partnering with highly qualified and trusted mindfulness colleagues. The process is more rewarding, and the outcome for clients is far superior, with this kind of coordinated approach.
This article originally appeared in The Harvard Business Review