Mindful Leaders Leading Self - a Heideggerian Phenomenological Study of Four Leaders in a Professional Environment

Walkinshaw, Therese Ovrevik
Nelson, Frances
Johnson, Rosser
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

The purpose of this study is to explore mindfulness and how it affects the way leaders engage with Self and others in order to discover how leaders understand their own practices of leading. Compared with leadership, leaders themselves are under-researched, and obtaining more understanding of their experience is useful both to the academy in particular and to society in general, because it is to leaders that the world looks, in times of stress, for exemplary behavior and guidance. Knowing the experience of some leaders mindfully leading self could assist others to achieve the same level of clarity and creativity that my participants have shown. With this purpose in mind, therefore, the research question I formulated to guide this study, was, “What is the experience of a mindful leader leading self?”

In terms of a doctoral study, this field of enquiry, the mindful leader leading self, is not a straightforward choice, at least in a Western university, because it is not a topic that can be deduced or proven, and understanding of it does not emerge from applying common sense or acquiring knowledge. Rather, insights into the phenomenon may be obtained by entering and understanding the experience of the individual leaders who engage with the self mindfully, and these insights must be gathered with the realisation that one individual’s experience will necessarily be different from that of every other individual. Krishnamurti (1983) asserts that people often live in what he refers to as a dream state, and suggests that many people never become aware of what it means to participate in the world as a true human being.

In general, the literature on self-leadership focuses on the cognitive experience of self (Weisberg, 2006), but this research focuses on driving beyond the cognitive notions of self into the lived experience of being a mindful leader leading self, placing mindfulness at the core of the study. Mindfulness, a practice deriving from Buddhism, promotes meditation in order to develop the ability of being in the present. Being in the present is important, according to Krishnamurti (1983), who teaches that freedom comes from letting the past go and allowing the future to be what it will, maintaining that being present in the moment allows the brain to become naturally quiet so that practitioners find the truth of what is and develop awareness of life around them. Walpola Rahula (1978), an earlier Buddhist scholar, similarly explains mindfulness as awareness, and argues that awareness is everything. By encouraging mindfulness (and other forms of spirituality) the organisation shifted responsibility to the workers, making it seem that ‘failure to thrive’ in the work environment was caused by workers’ inadequate spirituality. Mindfulness as a buzz word, then, presents potential pitfalls. It is an important aspect of this study to avoid the pitfalls and articulate the benefits of authentic mindfulness for leaders so that it comes from a place of realness, to the individual, and that it contributes meaningfully to existence.

This study adopts a Heideggerian (1927/62) philosophy about authenticity and Dasein, being in this world. In my view research on Heidegger shows some subtle differences between the way scholars see authenticity and the way Heidegger himself sees it, but as I have adopted Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenological approach, the fore-having of my idea of being a leader should be shared. An ontological questioning of the meaning of life is pivotal to this study, and the vehicle of this questioning is the experience of being a mindful leader leading Self. The participants’ stories show how important mindfulness is to leading Self in their engagement with their professional roles and with their lives.

My aim with this research is to gain an insight into the world of four leaders leading Self. I want to observe the ways in which mindful leaders lead Self, and as I have already said, I want to learn not only what the leaders do in terms of leadership action, but also by engaging deeply with my participants, to discover the nature of being a mindful leader. This research, then, will use a series of conversations to gather stories from individual leaders who are consciously engaged with leading Self, with a view to finding commonalities of understanding and behavior. The data accumulated from the conversations were analysed thematically to establish themes based on common experience and understanding. I am interested in what led the leaders to incorporate mindfulness into their everyday lives and the effect that mindfulness has on their professional conduct and if there are any divide between private and professional life.

All of the findings show how deeply the leaders have embraced mindfulness, and how this integration permits clarity of thought, openness to possibilities and creative flow (Rahula, 1978), but the key concept to emerge from this research is that mindful leaders play in their existence. In other words, they allow themselves to be open to possibilities and they hold life lightly so that they can move to the action or outcome that gives the best result for their situation. In this regard, mindfulness seems to diminish the drive for recognition and status, building instead a sense that the leaders live true to themselves and to others, a finding that resonates with Heidegger’s (1927/62) explication authenticity towards the self. The findings show that mindfulness does not remove unhappiness, problems and stress, but rather, that it shows a way towards comprehending and accepting the events that created the adverse reactions. For leaders everywhere, the implications of these findings are profound. My research shows that leading Self mindfully develops self-trust and allows for the action of intuition and letting things happen if they ‘feel right’. This way of being diminishes the pain and anxiety of leading, increasing confidence in the Self and others.

Mindfulness , Leaders , Phenomenology , Heidegger , Authenticity
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