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Meditation May Be the Key to Business Leadership

Nikita Singhal and Suken Vakil
March 5, 2012
The Independent Newspaper of Harvard Business School Community


Meditation @ HBS, Photo by Reena Gautam

What do Steve Jobs, Ray Dalio, Bill George, Marc Beinoff and Phil Jackson have in common? They are visionaries, have been known to lead and inspire teams, and have achieved significant success in their professional lives. They have one more thing in common – meditation. Could their focus on contemplative practices have something to do with their huge successes?

Suken Vakil & I (Nikita Singhal), both OG, are looking to answer that exact question, and we’ve designed an independent study under the guidance of Prof. Sandra Sucher, titled Meditation & Business Leadership.

How did we get interested? This past summer, I was fortunate to take a meditation workshop with the Art of Living Foundation in New York City. I have been meditating every day since, and have found that 25mins of meditation makes me think more proactively about my priorities, focus better, see issues from a new vantage point i.e. more objectively, and not get stressed about inconsequential events. Suken learned about contemplative practices through traveling in India with family.

We began to share our thoughts with friends and faculty on campus, and were surprised by the openness and interest amongst all. There seems to be an increasing awareness for contemplative studies at Harvard.

A study led by psychologist Sara Lazar at Harvard Medical School, was the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter, in areas associated with attention and emotional integration[1].

At Harvard Law School, The Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative, founded by Erica Fox, teaches mindfulness practices as essential to the art of conflict resolution. Meditation, Fox asserts, is central to achieving the Initiative’s mission, “…but is also enabling negotiators to be more successful in getting to yes.” [2]

HBS Professor Sandra Sucher is part of a cross-university study that looks at contemplative dimensions of leadership and leadership education, and they have invited guests such as Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, author of several scientific papers on mindfulness and co-author of The Mind’s Own Physician.

In A Powerful Silence, author Maia Duerr suggests that we are “in the midst of a massive demystification and democratization of contemplative practices”. At least 135 companies offer employees some form of meditation and/or yoga and the number of hospitals/clinics that provided mindfulness based stress reduction training for patients increased from 80 in 1993 to 250 in 2003.

So what does this mean for HBS? Suken and I aim to look into whether meditation can help business leaders increase self-awareness, mental clarity, focus and emotional intelligence. It is often also claimed that meditation helps a leader develop more authenticity, tolerance and empathy, which leads to a greater sense of belongingness and responsibility for the communities they live and work in.

We hope to gain some insights via a review of academic and popular literature, interviews with business leaders who practice meditation, and by meditating ourselves over the course of the semester to examine any impact.

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