There’s something slightly poetic about the idea of mindfulness in the American “heartland.” When the center of a nation is more, well, centered, it seems to bode well for all of us. Even more so, when you hear that it’s being included as a formal part of a multi-dimensional leadership development program for future global business leaders, you might just feel downright optimistic – no small miracle these days. At Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, Eric Johnson and Ray Luther are arming their MBA students with the tools they need to lead in challenging times: personal vision, fitness, compassion, and you guessed it – mindfulness.
When designing the “Lead for Life” programming within their Leadership Academy, Johnson and Luther wanted to encourage students to look inward before seeking to make external impact. According to Johnson, “We wanted to focus on areas where there was a large internal component to drive change. Personal visioning was first because without some sense of where you’re headed, it’s really hard to focus on what you need to do today.” Students in the Leadership Academy begin by developing structured goals that incorporate their experience and values into an action plan for pursuing their dreams.
According to April Samuelson (MBA ’16), the Personal Vision structure “helped me figure out the answers to some tough questions, including what I wanted to do–not just in terms of career–but in life, and whether I really felt comfortable pursuing opportunities outside of my comfort zone.”
Through the Compassion module, MBA students work directly with non-profit organizations in the local community, developing an understanding of leadership through on-the-ground connections. The Fitness component drives students to consider their own well-being as a corollary to their overall personal effectiveness, and actually guides students through training for a 5K race.
The the final module of Mindfulness was initiated through Johnson’s own experience with corporate burnout, and an introduction to The Art of Happiness by none other than the Dalai Lama. “My practice started slowly at first, but as I began to notice the positive impact, I took every opportunity I could to both practice and study meditation and mindfulness,” Johnson shared. “It’s an honor to be at a point where I can share what I’ve learned with others.”
To figure out exactly how to share mindfulness with MBA students, Johnson and Luther took inspiration from Janice Marturano’s Finding the Space to Lead as well as Google’s Search Inside Yourself Institute. Initially, they connected students with an external MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program, which was successful but lacked the obvious applicability to leadership that students were seeking. The second year, they partnered with Mark Power, a former Buddhist chaplain and current executive coach. “He has a way of simplifying some very complex topics and making them relevant for daily practice,” Luther reflected. Participants even engaged in a full day retreat at the local Tibetan Cultural Center, and then followed up with a series of optional practice sessions.
Despite the success of their evolving program, Johnson and Luther admit that striking exactly the right tone for MBA students can be challenging. “Remember that a lot of MBA students are type A, and more than 60% are men,” Johnson shared. “We have some work to do to overcome current perceptions, but it helps that both of us practice what we teach and are very open about sharing our experiences with our students.” Strong institutional partnership with Kelley has been critical, though, and enabled them to build the structure to frame their mindfulness programming within the Leadership Academy’s broader offerings. “We didn’t lead with mindfulness,” Johnson clarified, “we actually led with leadership and then build mindfulness into that topic.”
Going forward, Johnson and Luther are continuing to evolve their programming with the development of a “Self-Observant Leadership Model,” which they are excited to build into their students’ experience with “Lead for Life.” All iterations of the program are grounded in authenticity, however, which they find critical to gaining and maintaining buy-in from their high-achieving MBA population.
As Johnson aptly noted, “Students can spot ‘fake’ and ‘trendy’ from a mile away. This works because we practice it. We practice it because we believe in it. It’s hard to argue with somebody who walks their talk and tells you how it works for them.”
There’s your first leadership lesson. Take note, and then (mindfully) lead on.
Photo credit: Niels Weiss