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Building up a better leadership mind

I challenge you to sit in silence for a couple of minutes, just two or three minutes will do. Pay attention to the sounds you are hearing, the sensations present in your body, the connection of your body to wherever you are sitting, your breath coming in and out. What do you notice?

And what has this to do with good, wise leadership?

Since neuroscience has brought us the discovery of neuroplasticity(1), only recently have we understood the profound implications of such discovery: we have the ability to shape our brains, and therefore our minds. Such discovery has ignited science’s curiosity of how the practice of meditation and the shaping of our brains and minds, are linked. Scientific studies have shown that meditation practice(2) can produce structural changes in the brain that underpin benefits in emotional regulation and well-being, ability to focus, contentment, calmness, joy, clarity, decision-making, or analytical and critical thinking.

But let me clarify a few concepts regarding mindfulness and meditation. Contrary to what many people believe, it is not about making our minds be silent, calm and relaxed. Taking the definition used by Jon-Kabat Zinn(3), he defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, purposefully, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. In other words, it is not about making our minds be in a certain way, it is about learning to become aware and acknowledge their state and being ok with it. No matter what that state is: from calm, to agitated, angry or anxious. It teaches us to be aware of ourselves, and to fully accept the reality as it is right now, including “being ok with not being ok”, if that makes any sense to you. With time, we learn to become aware of how our minds react to diverse causes of suffering and stress, so that we can fully accept whatever we are feeling, fully experience it non-judgmentally, while consciously choosing how to respond to it, as opposed to blindly reacting to it, from a place of full awareness.

Having clarified this, it may start becoming apparent to the reader why we may want for ourselves but also for those in decision-making positions, to be able to base their decisions, not on their own unconscious impulses and emotional reactions, but based on consciously considered, thought-through, clear and rational analysis and foresight, not only focused on their own personal gain, but mainly geared towards the common interest and well-being.

The global threats that the 21st century is challenging us with, are great: from climate change to technological disruption, to the risk posed by nuclear weapons or further future pandemics. As a matter of fact, the global pandemic we are still fighting, has highlighted the importance of global cooperation and effective, long-term oriented, wise leadership. Indeed, living and taking long-term decisions within the complexity of the world we currently live in, is something our brains didn’t naturally evolve to respond to. Carl Sagan(4) put it out brilliantly: “Many of the dangers we face indeed arise from science and technology – but, more fundamentally, because we have become more powerful without becoming commensurately wise. The world-altering powers that technology has delivered into our hands how require a degree of consideration and foresight that has never before been asked of us”(5) Philosopher Toby Ord(6) highlighted in his last book that, “either humanity takes control of its destiny and reduces the risk to a sustainable level, or we destroy ourselves.”

Challenges are indeed great. And yet, I am convinced that we are up to the task, if we are willing to upgrade our minds so that we upgrade our ability to lead wisely, by thinking in a more clear and critical way, aware of our own biases, consciously into a bright future. There is a lot at stake.

[1] Neuroscience has brought us the knowledge that the brain is constantly changing—in terms of neuronal activity, architecture and connectivity – and that it recalibrates its connections and strengthens different circuits in response to how it is being used and challenged.

[2] Meditation practice is associated with (1) Increased Cortical Thickness” (high level functions and personality) (2005) by Sara Lazar et al, in Neuroreport, (2) Differences in Default Mode Network Activity & Connectivity” (such as being caught up in self-focused narratives)(2011) by Judson Brewer et al, in PNAS, (3) Induces Structural Connectome Changes in Insula Networks” (2018) by Paul Sharp et al, in Scientific Reports (attending to bodily sensations), (4) Pain Relief: Evidence for Unique Brain Mechanisms in the Regulation of Pain” (2012) by Fadel Zeidan et al, in Neuroscience Letters.

[3] Professor emeritus of medicine and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

[4] American astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, author and science communicator.

[5] Sagan (1994), pp. 316-17.

[6] Australian philosopher, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s “Future of Humanity Institute”, and author of “The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity”

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