Mindfulness for school leader well-being

Why mindfulness matters and how to make it work

By Lewis Bonney | September | October 2020
There are many programs for developing mindfulness in kids and teachers, but few mindfulness programs are tailored for school administrators. Mindfulness involves attention to the present without ruminations about the past or rehearsals for the future. Corporations have found that mindfulness practice improves job performance, interpersonal relations and well-being. This seems like a good time for introducing principals to exercises intended to create a sense of calm and heightened awareness in unfamiliar and uncertain circumstances. The immediate intent is to review the landscape of programs to enhance mindfulness, identify resources for training in mindfulness and to invite your participation in a study focused on what works best for school administrators.   Why mindfulness now? Mindfulness is relevant to clear-headed, calm and confident leadership. Standard definitions of mindfulness reference present-centered attention coupled with a high level of personal awareness, importantly unencumbered by thoughts and feeling about the past and future (Brown and Ryan, 2003; Quaglia, Brown, Lindsay, Creswell, & Goodman, 2015). A central concept in mindfulness is self-monitoring of the attentional stability necessary for high-quality job performance, healthy personal relationships and personal well-being.  Corporations have recognized the role of mindfulness in human resource development. Google, Apple, IBM, Starbucks, Goldman Sachs and the U.S. Army have incorporated mindfulness training in their leadership development programs. (Brendell & Bennet, 2016). General Mills developed the Institute for Mindful Leadership program now incorporated in leadership training by the Mayo Clinic, Proctor & Gamble and the U.S. Air Force. General Electric allocated 10 percent of its global training budget to mindfulness leadership development. (Canalosi, 2015). How does mindfulness work? Mindfulness works mostly by stabilizing attention. Good et. al (2016) articulated a model of mindfulness in the workplace, beginning with the role of mindfulness in stabilizing attention. More stable attention was associated with job-relevant enhancement of cognition, emotion, behavior and physiology. These characteristics, in turn, influenced workplace performance, relationships and well-being. Glomb, Duffy, Bono and Yang (2011) focused on the role of mindfulness in improving self-regulation. The authors provided a model of how mindfulness serves to decouple the self from events, thoughts and emotions, leading to enhanced leader self-regulation associated with improved employee performance and well-being. In each model, the authors viewed mindfulness as positively influencing mediating variables — attention, self-awareness and self-regulation. These characteristics were linked to improved performance at work.  Any hard science on mindfulness? Yes. Cognitive neuroscience has identified brain structures and brain functioning associated with mindfulness practice. Kabat-Zinn’s (2018) research showed how a standard Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program impacts brain activity. Employees at a biotech firm volunteered to participate in an on-site, during the workday, standardized eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program. As compared to a control group, volunteers in the mindfulness training group showed more efficient brain processing of difficult emotions and their new processing skills were evident at a four-month follow-up. Also, the experimental participants had a more robust immune response to a vaccine. Biomarkers reflected changes in brain circuitry associated with mindfulness training. Even short-term training in meditation impacts brain functioning. Zeidan (2020) used Magnetic Resonance Imaging to show how brief meditation (four days at 20 minutes) was associated with specific neurological pathways in the brain. Mindfulness-based analgesia engaged distinct neural mechanisms leading to moderated pain perception.  Does mindfulness influence leadership? Yes. Roche, Haar and Luthans (2014) demonstrated the influence of mindfulness on the mental well-being of CEOs (n=205), middle-level managers (n=183), junior managers (n=202) and entrepreneurs (n=107). They found that for all four samples’ mindfulness was negatively related to anxiety, depression and burnout. The authors added a measure of psychological capital and discovered that mindfulness gave managers greater access to the positive mental processes of PsyCap — hope, resilience, efficacy, resilience and optimism. They viewed mindfulness as an inner resource that supports healthy psychological functioning by disengaging individuals from unhealthy habits. Reb (2017) reported mindfulness was associated with lower employee turnover intention, mediated by reduced emotional exhaustion. King and Haar (2017) found that self-reported mindfulness of senior managers was related to external descriptions of leaders’ capacity for self-management and generation of new ideas. Reb (2018) offered evidence that mindful leaders communicate a level of respect for employees that are associated with lowered employee stress.  Well established mindfulness training MBSR has been well documented as effective in moderating psychological distress and improving a sense of well-being. The standard MBSR program involved groups of participants in classroom-based training for eight weeks, including a six-hour retreat between weeks six and seven. Each week, group leaders provided two to three hours of didactic training followed by participant practice in body scan, sitting and walking meditation and gentle yoga. Participants were expected to practice the exercises at home for 45 minutes, six days per week. Participants returned to class and shared their practice experience with classmates.  Chiesa and Serretti (2009) reviewed published studies of MBSR in healthy adults. As compared to controls, MBSR participants demonstrated significantly more reduction in stress, ruminative thinking and anxiety. Also, MBSR participants reported significantly more empathy and self-compassion.  Gu, Strauss, Bond and Cavanagh (2015) sought to better understand how MBSR and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy impacted psychological functioning and sense of well-being. They identified the most common MBSR and MBCT outcomes as moderation in mood, stress and anxiety. These common outcomes were mediated by changes in cognitive and affective reactivity. The implication was that mindfulness-based interventions most commonly impacted emotional regulation, leading to changes in levels of distress and feelings of well-being. It seemed that MBSR participants were gaining skills in distancing themselves from self-defeating emotional entanglements encountered during the workday. While the standard eight-week MBSR program was well documented and widely used to improve the cognitive and emotional status, the time commitments and scheduling seemed challenging for practicing administrators.
There was evidence that brief mindfulness training had a significant impact on cognitive and affective status. Tang et. al (2010) found that 11 hours of meditation training minimized the time needed for conflict resolution, suggesting an impact on the self-regulation components of mindfulness action. Baird et al (2014) demonstrated that a meditation training program can significantly improve the ability to reflect on thought, a capacity similar to the personal awareness hallmark of mindfulness. The meditation training program involved six hours of classroom practice, supplemented with 15 minutes per day of meditation outside class. A randomized control group design found the meditation group superior to controls in introspective accuracy. 

It was thought that mindfulness promoted decoupling of stressful events and self-appraisals. Mindful individuals were considered able to give attention to the present moment without the distraction of self-defeating thoughts.
Hulsheger et. al (2013) demonstrated that brief self-training in meditation can impact affective functioning. It was thought that mindfulness promoted the decoupling of stressful events and self-appraisals. Mindful individuals were considered able to give attention to the present moment without the distraction of self-defeating thoughts. The authors recruited service workers with a high volume of daily personal encounters with clients. During the 10 work days of the study, participants were asked to practice self-training in meditation twice per day, before work and after work, and to make daily diary records of exhaustion levels and job satisfaction. The mindfulness self-training was based on the meditation exercises articulated in MBSR and MBCT. The authors tailored familiar mindfulness training exercises for self-training modules. The modules addressed familiar meditation exercises, including Eating with Awareness (Raisin Exercise), Body Scan, Three-Minute Breathing and Loving Kindness. Additionally, the authors implemented pre- and post-tests of general exhaustion job satisfaction. The findings demonstrated that the brief out-of-work hours self-training was associated with significantly higher levels of mindfulness than wait list controls and that mindfulness was associated with lower levels of emotional exhaustion and higher levels of job satisfaction.   Mindfulness for educational leaders  There are not many empirical studies of the educational leader’s mindfulness. Hoy, Gage and Tarter (2006) commented on the importance of nurturing mindfulness in school leaders. In a study of 75 middle schools, they used the School Mindfulness Scale and the Omnibus T Scales to demonstrate that trust and mindfulness in faculty-principal relationships support each other. What are the options for training in mindfulness? “The Mindful School Leader” (Brown & Olson, 2015) offers compelling examples of a school leader’s experience with practicing mindfulness meditations. Also, the book includes lots of mindfulness exercises. The authors identify benefits of mindfulness including: “improved ability to notice and slow down, or stop, automatic reactions,” “increased capacity to respond to complex and difficult situations,” “ability to see situations more clearly, or many dimensions of a situation,” “becoming more creative at designing solutions to complex dilemmas,” and “ability to achieve balance and greater resilience at work and at home.” The book is evidence-based and user-friendly.  Most of the University of California  campuses offer general education mindfulness training. The UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness in the Department of Family Medicine offers individual mindfulness support sessions for challenging emotions, particularly emotions associated with pain, standard group MBSR programs, audio and video-guided meditations and a teacher training certificate program. The UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Program offers brief articles on mindfulness approaches to current emotional challenges including, “How to Be a Remarkable Boss During Lockdown,” “How Our Brains Can Find Peace in a Crisis” and “How to Support the People You Lead in Times of Uncertainty.” The UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center in the Semel Institute for Neuroscience offers classes and workshops for the general public, free guided meditations, and a certificate for teaching mindfulness.  There are well-regarded free websites for practicing mindful mediations at your convenience. The websites mount on your mobile device or laptop. You can practice at any time of day, for as short or long as you wish.  The audio-guided exercises range from 5 to 30 minutes and address topics including Breathing for Relaxation through Working with Difficulties, and to Loving Kindness. For a good sense of mindfulness benefits, it makes sense to practice the exercises three to five times per week for three months. In addition to practicing meditation, you can participate in a study of how online meditation works for principals. In the research, four demographic questions and a five-minute questionnaire for recording your present mindfulness. With your approval, the website will send you a follow-up questionnaire for recording your experience with online meditation practice. You may elect to receive a weekly prompt to practice.  Resources Baird, B. Mrazek, M., Phillips, D. & Schooler, J. (2014). Domain specific enhancement of metacognitive ability following meditation training. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 143 (5), 1072-1979. Brown, V. & Olson, K. (2015). The Mindful School Leader. Corwin: Thousand Oaks.  Brown, K. & Ryan, R. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, (4), 822-848. Brendell, B. & Bennet. K. (2016). Learning to embody leadership through mindfulness and somatics practice. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 18 (3), 409-425. Chiesa, A. & Serretti, A. (2009). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditation. Psychological Medicine, 40 (8), 1239-1252. Good, D., Lyddy, C., Gomb, T., Bono, J., Brown, K., Duffy, M., Baer, R., Brewer, J. & Lazar, S. (2016). Contemplating mindfulness at work: An integrative review. Journal Management, 42 (1), 114-142.   Hoy, W., Gage, C. & Tarter, C. (2006). School mindfulness and faculty trust: Necessary conditions for each other. Educational Administrative Quarterly, 42 (2), 236-235. Kabat-Zinn (2018). A study in happiness – Meditation, the brain and the immune system. Mindfulness, 9, 1664-1667.   Quaglia, J., Brown, K., Lindsey, E., Creswell, J., & Goodman, R. (2015). From conceptualization to operationalization of mindfulness. In Handbook of Mindfulness: Theory research and practice. Guilford: New York. Reb, J., Narayanan, J., Chaturvedi, S. & Ekkirala, S. (2017) The Mediating Role of Emotional Exhaustion in the Relationship of Mindfulness with Turnover Intentions and Job Performance. Mindfulness, 8 (3), 707-716) DOI 10.1007/s12671-016-0648-z . Roche, M., Haar, J. & Luhans (2014). The role of mindfulness and psychological capital on the well-being of Leaders. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 19, 476-489.  Zeidan, F. (2020) The Neuroscience of Mindfulness. Workshop presentation, University of California at San Diego: San Diego.
Lewis Bonney is a professor at Azusa Pacific University.

© 2020 Association of California School Administrators

Association of California School Administrators