London - Mindfulness, it seems, is having its moment.
The A-list celebrities who have embraced it include Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey, and what was regarded as a wispy New Age practice has become a fashionable fad. But why are business schools researching mindfulness, with business conferences being designed around it, and MBA students attending retreats?
There's a lot of psycho-babble around mindfulness, and Professor Amir Sharif, former head of Brunel Business School, concedes that it's a fad. “But it's not new,” he argues. “The roots go back to ancient philosophies including Zen and Confucius. It is the truest definition of well-being.”
Dr Milena Bobeva, who leads the MBA course at Bournemouth University, sees it as a tool that allows you to focus and re-energise your mind and body to deal with the pressures of an intensive day at work. “Schools focus on meditation and stress relief, and mindfulness is a catchy label for a wider audience.”
Slow management is often linked with mindfulness, though according to Chris Rowley, professor of HR management at Cass Business School, they are two different theories that have particular relevance for MBAs. “The common perception is that fast equals good and slow equals bad, but slow management means taking the time to meet people and giving consideration and thought to what you do. But there's a challenge in pitching these theories to business students who want certainty and universal applicability.”
Mindfulness, he agrees, is a topical buzzword found everywhere, but he sees it as a way to improve personal and organisational performance and to focus on what's important when besieged by instant connectivity.
Dr Bobeva argues: “The principles of slow management are an imperative for any business professional who wants their organisation to maximise the potential of its workforce. This strategy has strong links with emotional intelligence and could help overcome the dehumanisation and stress coming from ubiquitous technologies. It should be covered as part of any classic MBA programme.”
Slow management and mindfulness are being taken seriously in the academic and business world.
A Mindful Leadership Summit takes place in Washington DC in November, with 25 eminent speakers on the subject. Grenoble School of Management has a specialist research chair in mindfulness, where Dr Marie Holm is researching the subject and feels passionately about its value. She credits her enthusiasm to her Scandinavian background, where she says nature is an important part of living, and people are immersed in slow management.
Given that mindfulness is being adopted into the business school scene, does it fit into the MBA? Not overtly, claims Professor Sharif. “It's a philosophy so you can't teach it, you have to practice it. The MBA must be structured to be mindful, with concepts embedded into it so that students are practising it without realising.”
He sees a challenge for business schools in adopting mindfulness, but Rotterdam School of Management is upfront about the subject, incorporating it into the MBA programme and even sending students on a week's retreat to South Africa. Professor Dianne Bevelander sees the study of mindfulness as essential for MBA students. “They run their lives on iPhones and iPads so spending a week on a nature reserve on a retreat with no wi-fi gives them time to slow down. The course is divided into mindfulness, storytelling and silence - they have to make friends with quietness.”
Participants write essays before and afterwards about their experience, and some, says Bevelander, are very emotional. “One woman said that she used to avoid group encounters and didn't trust anyone, but afterwards she found leadership confidence.”
And does Bevelander practice what she preaches? “I believe that you learn to be a leader by watching others. I'd learnt mainly from men and had an assertive style. In a 360- degree assessment my peers admired my competence but didn't like me. I was very cynical about mindfulness but I learned to quieten down and reframe how I spoke. It did me a huge amount of good, and at a later assessment the feedback was much more positive.”
The MBA aims to develop tomorrow's leaders, and Eric Beaudan, who runs the global leadership practice at headhunters Odgers Berndston, sees mindfulness as key. He argues that it impacts leadership by helping leaders to make better decisions through sitting back, clearing their mind and focusing on what is important. “A CEO told me that the greatest gift any executive can give someone is their attention.”
According to research by Rotterdam's Erasmus University on mindfulness, around 40 percent of our time our minds are wandering from the subject. “While I'm talking to you I may be spending nearly half the time thinking about what I'm having for lunch,” admits Beaudan. So where have your thoughts wandered to while reading this article? Time for some mindfulness training, perhaps.