Mind-Body Leadership

images-2Numerous business and scientific articles have recently focused on breath work and mind-body explorations for increased effectiveness in the workplace and in navigating the lives we lead. It’s as though the business world has finally caught on to the fact that our brains work of behalf of our bodies. In fact, multiple presenters at the 2019 Mindful Leader Summit said it most convincingly. “Our brains work on behalf of our bodies to ensure we are nourished and cared for.”

Author Lisa Feldman Barrett (How Emotions Are Made), argues that a main purpose of the brain is to read the body, and to regulate what she calls the body budget. “You might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around: What you feel alters your sight and hearing.”

Our bodies are composed of a mass of neurons and receptors that provide constant feedback on what we are experiencing. Much to my chagrin, New York Times op-ed by David Brooks, a conservative political and cultural commentator, write about a topic I discuss in mindfulness and yoga classes: the vagus nerve and it connection to our well-being.

imagesAmazing! I could not have said it better than Mr. Brooks, “The vagus nerve is one of the pathways through which the body and brain talk to each other in an unconscious conversation. Much of this conversation is about how we are relating to others. Human thinking is not primarily about individual calculation, but about social engagement and cooperation.”

The vagus nerve along with every neuron pathway that runs throughout the body are part of every action and decision we make, how we interact with our colleagues and staff members and how we create a collaborative environment to achieve business goals. One we learn to recognize and tap into what we yogis call “the subtle body,” the more effective we will be as leaders and team members. 


Neuroscience now tells us that we each have three brains. Our “mind” brain is great for thinking, creativity and cognitive activities. Our heart brain is meant to take the lead on emotional processing, on our values and connections to others. Our gut brain is where we find our sense of self preservation, our sense of self and taking action. It is where we find our courage to speak out and to act as leaders. 

Listening to our bodies is key to finding the inner strength and resilience we need to lead with confidence, clarity and compassion. Mind-body practices simulate the challenges and encounters we face everyday in the workplace and in our personal live. Much like “muscle memory,” your response to somatic or physical practices becomes part of your “brain memory” that you can draw upon when needed. In essence, we need to listen more to what we feel rather than rationalizing a decision from a long list of pros and cons. 


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The Price of Being a Woman Leader

Over the past two weeks, we witnessed extraordinary testimonials from our diplomatic corps and government professionals during the impeachment inquiry. Their confidence, demeanor and ability to rise to their best under pressure are qualities we seek in our leaders. The women who spoke the truth during the inquiry demonstrated  leadership and self possession in a highly charged political environment. 

black-belt-photo-meredith-gold-elbowWhat was evident, though, is that all too often women who speak out and express their knowledge and authority on critical matters such as our national security are relegated to the sidelines. Even more evident — and distressing — are the belittling, visceral tweets and snide remarks questioning the validity of their knowledge and truthfulness. 

Unknown-1Last week I wrote about Fiona Hill’s ability to speak with confidence, clarity and profound conviction about the threats our country faces internally as well as externally. The dynamic combination of knowledge, resilience and conviction provided the platform for Dr. Hill’s testimony and for her acclaimed leadership as a Russian analyst.

Similarly, I wrote about the dignity Ambassador Yovanovitch displayed as she imagesrecounted the disinformation campaign and false scandal she endured. How amazingly self-possessed she was. What magnanimity she expressed when emphasizing that she serves on behalf of the president; not a disgruntled comment was expressed, only her wish to understand what she had done to cause her removal.

But as we have witnessed, there is the price women pay for speaking out with conviction, for performing their jobs with a strong sense of duty and for taking a leadership roles where they advise and consult on highly sensitive national security issues. The vicious remarks against women go beyond anything we could ever imagine. These remarks have been crude and demeaning.  

UnknownThis past weekend Lisa Page spoke out on what she has endured for doing her job, for becoming an expert on international law and for caring about the integrity of the organization she worked for. As stated in the Daily Beast article, “Ultimately, she was just another public servant like Fiona Hill or Marie Yovanovitch. She was dragged into the spotlight, her text messages weaponized, and her life destroyed so that the Trump administration could have a brief distraction.”

What is truly most disturbing about Lisa Page’s story is that she was betrayed by the organization that she was committed to and where she had built her career. She followed the rules, but the “CYA” mentality of her bosses and supervisors ultimately used her as a scapegoat. The focus on her personal life was scathing and far more demeaning than what men have gone through when ravaged by those in power.

Are we preparing women for this type of abuse? For those of us teaching leadership courses, we may need to include more preparation for rough, aggressive verbal and social media confrontation. 

black-belt-photo-meredith-gold-stanceWe might look to Black Belt training for concepts to add to leadership training. Much like dealing with physical assaults, Black Belt concepts are applicable to women who find their lives ripped apart with emotionally-charged attacks. Black Belt training states: “Although an aggressive verbal confrontation can be terrifying, you have to be strong enough to show the attacker he’s picked the wrong victim. If you stand tall, remain calm and respond confidently and assertively, your attacker will look for an easier target.”  

Black Belt includes a mindfulness component: Women are taught to understand the relationship between their breathing pattern and state of mind. Women are advised to practice slow, controlled breathing that will help them stay calm and, 

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Leading With Conviction

Beyond all partisan commentary of the last two weeks of testimonies, everyone who heard Fiona Hill can agree that she was formidable and awe-inspiring. New Yorker writer John Cassidy captures the sense of awe I felt as I watched Dr. Hill’s testimony. According to Cassidy, “Her testimony will also be remembered for her manifest smarts, her directness—a trait of the region where she grew up—her steely self-confidence, and the moral earnestness she displayed.”


Hill’s strong defense of the stated values of her adopted country, and the threats it faces—internal as well as external — was delivered with profound conviction. In comparison, those who challenged her commitment to speaking the truth came across as disgruntled lightweights who had lost their sense of what being an American stands for. 

I thought back to an article about women leaders and their response to the question of how they want to be perceived. Top responses focused on qualities of self confidence and trust. Other qualities noted were:  

  • Remain calm in the midst of crisis and chaos.
  • Rise to her best under pressure.
  • Absorb new information quickly.
  • Keep her self-possession.
  • Not retreat from the moment.

For me, this is Dr. Hill. Her strength comes from deep inside — what we often call grit — or those life experiences that develop inner resilience. Facing difficulties or challenges in life help us to develop a sense of strength from deep within. In mindfulness classes, we often discuss whether grit can be developed. How can those of us who have not faced overwhelming challenges aspire to be resilient, to stand up to truth and speak our mind?

No doubt Fiona Hill’s early struggles with poverty in and loss of her father developed much of the resilience we witnessed. But there was another important factor: her perseverance and passion for learning. She became a distinguished Russian analyst and built her reputation on her insights into President Vladimir Putin and help a clear view on the threats posed by Russia to the US. Her knowledge and understanding are planted deep in her heart — in her belief system. 

This dynamic combination of knowledge, resilience and conviction provided the platform for Dr. Hill’s testimony and for her acclaimed leadership as a Russian analyst. She is a perfect case study to consider in leadership classes and how to embark on mindfulness to uncover strength and conviction in order to deal with difficult situations in our work, in the world and in day-to-day life. 

Taking time for mindfulness and reflective meditations, we can observe ourselves and discover a path of achieving goals. In essence, mindfulness becomes a practice that helps us discover our grit, our ability to be persistent and feel the rewards of consistency and discipline.

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Magnanimity and Leadership

Fiona Hill, Maria Yovanovitch, Alexander Vindman, David Holmes, Laura Cooper, William Taylor, Jennifer Williams and George Kent are to be recognized and honored for following their duty as career diplomats and government professionals to testify in the face of intense scrutiny and partisan criticism. They came forward at the request of Congress, risking  their jobs, their reputation and the security of their families.  Their testimonies confirmed a deep commitment to truth, liberty and freedom. Each testimony exemplified qualities of leadership and conveyed how the workings and security of our nation depend on our career diplomats and government professionals.  


I was emotionally moved by the dignity Ambassador Yovanovitch displayed as she recounted the disinformation campaign and false scandal she endured. How amazingly self-possessed she was. What magnanimity she expressed when emphasizing that she serves on behalf of the President; not a disgruntled comment was expressed, only her wish to understand what she had done to cause her removal. 

In leadership training, the magnanimity session is saved for last. Magnanimity refers to a greatness of mind that helps us face insurmountable challenges and difficult situations with tranquility and firmness. 

To find tranquility and firmness, we need to incorporate the concept of non-attachment into our daily lives. For everyone, this is a significant and lifelong challenge. Nonetheless, meditation and breathing techniques can help you become more “magnanimous” by practicing the letting go of thoughts and things in our lives that create stress, resistance and self-doubt. We discover that we can choose which challenge we want: the challenge of change and growth, or the challenge of remaining as you are. Like Ambassador Yovanovitch, we can speak with truth and compassion.

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Discover Effortless Mindfulness and Try These 5 Micro-Practices

A in-depth article and mindful practices from MindfulLeader.org

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Why Grit, Not IQ, Predicts Success

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Wisdom from a MacArthur Genius: Psychologist Angela Duckworth on Why Grit, Not IQ, Predicts Success 

“Character is at least as important as intellect.”

A headline from a recent Brain Pickings newsletter (a simply amazing resource for stimulating our minds) caught my attention and led me to reflecting on the question of whether “grit” can be learned or taught.

In working with a group of graduate students at Simmons School of Management (SOM), I hope to find at least a partial answer to this question. SOM students are participating in YogaUnbound’s Mindfulness for Leaders Program to learn techniques and tools for addressing the challenges they will face when taking their management and business degrees into the workplace.

In our initial Discipline and Commitment session, we explored discipline as “determined efforts” — something valued and cultivated for greater clarity and commitment. We used a yoga sequence to prepare for a pinnacle pose (aka challenging pose). Throughout the sequence, SOM students examine their strengths and weaknesses and assess their reaction to poses they found difficult;  they compare this reaction to how they feel when faced with difficult situations in their day-to-day life. Was their tendency to pull back and feel defeated or to muscle it out with a determination that might not always be a healthy one?

While grit might be most associated with “muscling it out,” will more mindfulness techniques, combined with the concept of “practice, practice, practice,” provide a more suitable path for those who tend to pull back as well as for those who over-extend themselves? When we pull back from difficult yoga pose or feel frustrated with meditating, we need a safe and supportive environment to fail and to try again. We need a way to practice and discover a path of achieving goals. In essence, a practice that helps us discover our grit, our ability to be persistent and feel the rewards of consistency and discipline.

For those who over-muscle our way into a pose (and possibly overdo our meditation practice), we need an environment that helps bring our practice back into balance for health and safety concerns. In a work environment, we’d classify this over-achiever as being a Type A personality, who too often burn out or, even worse, have stress and health issues.

But back to Angela Duckworth and where this blog began…

Ms. Duckworth switched from a lucrative consulting career with McKinsey to teaching math to middle-school students. As a math teacher, she had found students’ self-discipline scores were far better predictors of their academic performance than their IQ scores. Trying to understand why some students succeeded while others did not became her focus and passion, and ultimately lead to Ms. Duckworth pursuing a career as a research psychologist at UPenn.

Angela Duckworth’s research suggested that it’s useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. In her view, each is necessary to achieve long-term goals, but neither is sufficient alone.

As stated in Brain Pickings:

 For example, “Most of us are familiar with the experience of possessing motivation but lacking volition: You can be extremely motivated to lose weight, for example, but unless you have the volition – the willpower, the self-control – to put down the cherry Danish and pick up the free weights, you’re not going to succeed. If a child is highly motivated, the self-control techniques and exercises Duckworth tried to teach [the students in her study] might be very helpful. But what if students just aren’t motivated to achieve the goals their teachers or parents want them to achieve? Then, Duckworth acknowledges, all the self-control tricks in the world aren’t going to help.”

Thinking about Angela Duckworth’s focus on the need for grit to succeed and achieve our goals, I come back to the questions of whether mindfulness can possibly play a role in developing grit.

As the founder of YogaUnbound’s Mindfulness for Leaders, I’ve been asked why I feel yoga is an important component of the program. While being diligent in developing a long-term meditation practice is key to well-being and all the other qualities we promote with mindfulness, challenging yoga poses ask us to physically and mentally experience determination and commitment – a total mind-body experience. In our mindfulness classes, we practice in an environment where you can make mistakes – even laugh when you fall over – and begin to savor each improvement in doing this pose. You begin to realize how doing it over and over again leads to success, however you have defined it.

In researching how mindfulness with a focus on yoga is having a significant impact, I found the closest parallel to yoga being used with athletes to applying yoga in the workplace.

Clayton Horton, director of Greenpath Yoga Studio in San Francisco and a former triathlete and competitive swimmer, states that endurance is simply “the ability to persevere.” Horton feels that yoga improves one’s endurance by helping athletes to relax, preserve energy, and better concentrate—especially in demanding circumstances. “Yoga gives you the mental strength to be still and to concentrate in the midst of a difficult pose or while your muscles are burning,” he explains. “With yoga, you learn the ability to observe the patterns of tension in the body that take away from efficiency.It is important for athletes not to be distracted. Yoga can help you to sit back and be the witness or to observe and be a little clearer and make better decisions, like being able to pace yourself during a 10K run or a long workout.” (Yoga Journal)

The goal of YogaUnbound’s mindfulness program is to give these MBA/management students the experience of being in the intensity of the work environment through challenging but mindful yoga poses. When they need to be fully engaged, to be present and observe so that they can make better decisions, and persevere to achieve the results they aspire to, they can turn to their mindfulness and yoga training. They can uncover their “true grit” and move forward with inner strength, awareness and confidence).

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How Meditation Strengthens Leadership

At a recent introductory Mindfulness for Leadership session, I was taken aback when young man in the audience asked, “What does mindfulness have to do with leadership?” I rattled off all the standard reasons for practicing mindfulness expecting the questioner to make the connection. Reading this article, I realize what I should have said.
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How Meditation strengthens the 4 Pillars of Leadership


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