Mindful Business Leadership

Mindful business leadership must connect mindfulness to the moral principles of the traditions in which it originated. It must also situate itself convincingly in relation to models of leadership, either assimilating into an existing model or offering a new one. And it ought to show how a mindful leader might concretely figure into a corporate governance structure in a way that is reasonably expected to advance the firm’s social responsibilities.

Previously, in “If the Dalai Lama Ran General Mills,” I argued that it will be a good thing if the mindfulness movement can make even modest changes for a more human-centered approach to management. In this essay, I wish to further explore ethical concerns regarding mindfulness as a leadership strategy for the corporate sphere, which are notably absent from titles in the popular press touting mindful management. Any legitimate advocacy for mindful business leadership should satisfy four moral preconditions.

First, it ought to give an account of the deeper purposes of mindfulness, considered both in the traditions of its origin and in relation to advancing ethical business management. Second, it must acknowledge the “thinness” of moral concepts—such as compassion and selflessness—so prevalent in discussions of mindfulness, which should not be taken at face value. Third, such an account should situate itself convincingly in relation to models of leadership, either assimilating into an existing model or offering a new one. Fourth, it ought to show how a mindful leader might concretely figure into a corporate governance structure in a way that is reasonably expected to advance the firm’s social responsibilities.

Seeking a Deeper Purpose of Mindfulness


The concept of mindfulness is complex and lacks a definite meaning. While a theory of mindful business leadership may have its own strategic role for mindfulness, it is important to acknowledge that mindfulness and the contemplative practices seeking to foster it originate in Eastern wisdom traditions, especially Buddhism. A mindful leadership program must take care to respect the venerable and intricate philosophies of mindfulness, lest it fuel suspicion that it is adopting the views of recent organizational theory. There, mindfulness is reduced to narrow operational definitions such as “bare attention” and “present-moment awareness.” This detaches the concept from its distinctively ethical point in Eastern traditions. Doing so obscures its central soteriological role and furthers the commodification and instrumentalization of mindfulness to satisfy corporate interests.

Concerning applications of mindfulness to business and leadership, the first theoretical condition can pose difficult issues. How should would-be mindful CEOs be advised in confronting the existential questions “How ought I to live?” and “What is the purpose of our business?” If a corporate leader takes the deeper ethical point of mindfulness seriously, might this not lead her and her followers to renounce their competitive tendencies? Why not just quit the capitalistic game, wave goodbye to toxic corporate culture, and join an ashram, teach third grade, or become a social worker?

These are not meant to be sarcastic questions. Self-transformation philosophies (especially those hailing from ancient China, India, and Greece) often proceed from ethically-based and sacred understandings of mindfulness. They advance a certain view of human nature and look to some broader cosmological or metaphysical understanding of the world. In addition, Eastern self-transformation philosophies teach that the normal default state for humans is problematic in a peculiar way. In Buddhism the default human condition is suffering, impermanence, and unsatisfactoriness. Buddhism makes the claim that one can reach or approach an ideal state transcending the difficult parts of the human condition through practices like meditation, virtue cultivation, philosophical reflection, and practical wisdom, and other varieties of spiritual, physical, or therapeutic self-discipline.

In the case of Buddhism, “right mindfulness” (samma sati) is worlds apart from approaches of popular new-age mindfulness evangelists that cherry-pick elements of nonjudgmental awareness and focus on the present moment, packaging these components into a set of corporate, competition-enhancing performance attributes: focus control, capacity, speed, agility, clarity, durability, enhanced awareness, and stress reduction. In stark contrast, “right mindfulness” refers to the mind’s discernment in recollecting, knowing, and distinguishing skillful and unskillful behaviors. It is not “passive and nonjudging.” Nor is it confined to a “be here, now” but extends across the temporal spectrum of past, present, and future, engaging the capacity to discriminate between wholesome and unwholesome thoughts and actions. Thus, right mindfulness, intertwined with right view and right effort, is cultivated with ethical discipline, integrity (sila), concentration (samadhi), and the attainment of wisdom that leads toward liberation from suffering (nirvana).

Ethical Disagreement Calling on Practical Wisdom

A mindful leadership theory must show how mindfulness figures into ethical deliberation and the application of practical wisdom, particularly with respect to how we handle moral dilemmas. For example, reasonable people of goodwill—including mindful individuals—often disagree about what the mindful, selfless, or compassionate thing to do is, particularly in business contexts where there are trade-offs to be made. A morality-as-plain-fact treatment neglects the controversial nature of value questions and sidesteps the necessity for those in organizational positions of authority to justify moral judgments in difficult cases. Otherwise put, ethical issues are often not so simple as to admit of a straightforward, factual identification of conduct as “compassionate,” or “selfless.”

One may wonder how far a trait like compassion goes in terms of a mindful leader’s overall development as a socially responsible, moral agent. Other character traits like honesty, loyalty, and prudence are also engaged. Despite the good effects of improved focus, expanded awareness, and reduced preoccupation with selfish concerns, when conscientiously resolving a thorny ethical dilemma, practical wisdom (phronesis), sustained reasoning about the moral law, and virtues beyond compassion and selflessness are often doing the lion’s share of the work instead of compassion simpliciter.

Assimilation to Appropriate Corporate Governance Structure

Remember the Wendy’s commercial where Dave Thomas (the company’s founder) is sitting with white-robed meditators being coached to “listen to your inner voice”? One meditator reports, “my inner voice says honor my inner child.” The next one declares, “mine says love everyone.” Then Dave Thomas proclaims, “my inner voice says ‘I’d like a bacon mushroom melt.’” When the group’s guru says “you need to go deeper,” Dave responds, “ok, biggie fries and a drink.” The ad ends with the whole group eagerly chowing down on the featured product to Dave’s tag line, “talk about inner peace!”

This commercial can be seen as a metaphor pointing to a cynical reflection I offered in my earlier essay. That piece noted various cultural tensions latent within the modern mindfulness movement and pondered their implications for corporate leadership. I wrote: “The Dalai Lama says he is a socialist. What happens if you place a CEO-clone of His Holiness at the helm of a publicly traded company like General Mills that has been hard-wired for self-interested shareholder wealth maximization?” My answer, in brief, is this: whatever inner, non-instrumental disposition an authentically mindful leader may bring to the table is at risk, particularly at a traditional profit-driven firm, in the face of the pervasive vulgarizing forces of “McMindfulness.” Thus, for the time being, forget General Mills. I’m guessing that the Dalai Lama would fare much better heading up Patagonia.

Realistically speaking, the deep moral promptings a mindful leader tries to import into a mainstream profit-maximizing enterprise will tend to be at best merely tolerated, misunderstood, or ignored; at worst they will be mocked. In any case, they will be recast in ways that are appropriately in line with the competitive, materialistic, profit-seeking goals of such a company. Ronald Purser has convincingly shown in his recent book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, how the mindfulness movement is systematically kidnapped by neoliberalism, resulting in what he dubs the “mindfulness conspiracy.”

The emergence of B Corporations, however, signals a potentially more congenial habitat within which the radical transformational potentialities of genuinely mindful leadership may flourish. Such companies are at the forefront of a culture shift reorienting the purpose of business away from the vision of shareholder wealth maximization to one of maximizing value for society.

B Corporations are committed to higher standards of accountability: they enlarge the fiduciary duty of their directors, beyond promoting shareholder interests, to take into account also stakeholder interests. B Corporations use legal innovation to devise corporate governance and management systems to satisfy their investors’ aims in attaining social impact with as much rigor as making profit. For instance, it is mandatory that Certified B Corporations complete B Impact Assessment, attaining a minimum score to satisfy certification performance requirements.

My argument is not that all for-profit companies are unethical. Nor do I claim that all for-profit enterprises will necessarily subvert mindfulness interventions from higher moral and spiritual aims. Such enterprises are, at any rate, free to choose whether or not to advance corporate social responsibility (CSR), and to what degree. For B Corporations, by contrast, advancing CSR is effectively built into their legal DNA. B Corporations are legally accountable to their investors for achieving measurable social impact.

The authentic moral and spiritual ideals of mindfulness—nonegoism, nonmaterialism, compassion for all living things—will likely find a more acquiescent home in hybrid social enterprises that are redefining the purpose of business than in traditional, profit-centered enterprises. The B Corp movement represents an innovative way to hardwire corporate governance structures to the kind of CSR-goals that mindful leaders with expanded compassion would naturally embrace.

Business schools should seek to match the spiritually driven, intrinsic motivations of mindful, contemplative, serving leaders of tomorrow by equipping them with adequate knowledge of, and skill in, working with governance structures that support rather than oppose such motivations. To be sure, business schools can and should continue to educate about how CSR may be pursued by traditional, profit-centered firms. Regardless, it is noteworthy that B Corps can be held up as evidence of feasible enterprises that place intrinsic value on CSR—not simply where a business case can be made for it.

It seems an obviously good thing if mindfulness can help bring about a more caring and socially enlightened model of corporate leadership. What needs to appear in mindful leadership thought is a set of guiding arguments that coherently situate it alongside both established and emerging leadership models. At the same time, a satisfactory nexus needs to be forged between such leadership approaches and corporate governance regimes that are geared to reorienting the purpose of business for social impact. Moreover, such a theory would be welcomed if it could provide some principled justification for whatever position it takes along the value spectrum of the mindfulness movement. Finally, in light of perennial philosophical controversies of business ethics, a mindful leadership theory needs anchoring to a framework of objective moral reasoning and ethical interpretation. When it appears, that sort of theory will be a valuable advancement for business and for the wider culture.

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