No leader is an island: every leader has a team, and with every team comes relationships and responsibilities for which they are accountable. A great leader is compassionate, disciplined, sharp, and self-aware, and meditation could improve all these qualities.
Decreasing distress (stress that causes anxiety, anger, and depression) with meditation can help increase compassion. As stated in Psychology Today by Amie Gordon, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, stress can cause people to become “more withdrawn and distracted, and less affectionate.” A study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in March of 2022 suggests a negative correlation between stress and compassion by recording the change in charitability before and after a stressful task. They found that participants marked as “altruistic” experienced a “sharp decline” in charitability after the stressful event. Although the change was insignificant in non-altruistic participants, subsequent fMRI scans revealed that the increase in cortisol from the stress affected actions in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which plays a central role in social decision-making 1. While the inconsistencies in the participants require further exploration, the fMRI scans demonstrate that stress can cause changes to our mental processes that reduce compassion.
In a 2015 study, researchers from Harvard and Columbia found a link between anxiety, which is a reaction to stress 2, and the inability to understand other perspectives. With a sample size of 300 people, the researchers asked participants to write about an experience where they felt anxiety, anger, disgust, surprise, or pride to induce these emotions. They were then tested on perspective taking, such as recognizing if the recipient of a sarcastic email would read it as sincere, and the researchers found that participants in the anxiety-induced group scored significantly worse than others 3. This reinforces the importance of destressing because perspective-taking is crucial for empathy, or understanding and sharing others’ feelings, and compassion cannot emerge without it.
Above all else, these studies provide insight into the primitive constructs of human reasoning. Stress can lead to anxiety, which, as suggested by the 2015 study, indicates uncertainty about the future and makes us feel more vulnerable to danger. As a result, we “fall back on what we know to be true — namely, our own perspectives and feelings” and become selfish for survival 3. Realistically, however, the stress leaders experience daily does not determine their life and death and can originate from menial tasks such as filling out paperwork. Leaders can help manage their stress by meditating, helping them become more compassionate, and understanding their team. They will become more willing to share their time and energy, acknowledge accomplishments, empower others, and give opportunities, such as second chances.
A decrease in distress also leads to clarity of mind, which plays a critical role in social intelligence and communication. According to Dynamic Signal, in 2019, “80% of workers in the US were stressed as a result of ineffective company communications 4”, which was a “30%” increase from 2018.” While the statistic does not specify the cause of the ineffective communications, stress can play a role since it releases cortisol and adrenaline, which initiates our fight or flight response (“Cortisol” 5). We become more “on edge”, increasing our irritability and hostility towards others.
As stated by Monk John, “A leader does not have the be the smartest in the organization. Still, they must be smart enough to connect with different people to solve problems."
Lastly, meditation develops discipline. Any first-time meditator is no stranger to the influx of thoughts and doubts that crowd their mind when they try to sit still and do nothing. It takes patience and self-awareness, which, once harnessed, can tremendously benefit leadership. Not only will it limit arguments and increase cooperation within the workplace, but it can also lead to a sense of “purity”.
As explained by Monk John, “The purity in these senses is the discipline, code of conduct and moral conduct. We do not want a leader who has sexual allegations or embezzles money from the company’s assets… If he cannot show discipline… nobody will trust him. If we cannot trust our leader, who else can we trust in the organization? The organization’s directions will become unclear because the leader will not be able to give proper guidance.”
Thus, the benefits are clear: meditation could vastly improve leadership by increasing compassion, discipline, and clarity. If you are a leader, your schedule can become understandably busy but do not underestimate the improvements just five minutes of meditating can add to your daily life. It could be in your car before work, at the dinner table before school, on your bed before you fall asleep, or anywhere else you feel comfortable. All leaders should strive to integrate meditation into their lives since it can lead to many positive outcomes for themselves and those around them.
Rakshit, Devrupa. Why Stress Makes the Most Empathetic People Less Kind. The Swaddle, 29 Mar. 2022. ↩︎
Ross, Franzi. Stress vs. Anxiety – Knowing the Difference Is Critical to Your Health. Mental Health First Aid, 5 June 2018. ↩︎
Todd AR; Forstmann M; Burgmer P; Brooks AW; Galinsky AD; Anxious and Egocentric: How Specific Emotions Influence Perspective Taking. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, U.S. National Library of Medicine. ↩︎ ↩︎
Cortisol: The Good News, Bad News, and the Downright Ugly Truth behind This Stress Hormone. University of Utah Health. ↩︎