This post explores the conceptual and theoretical base of stillness as it relates to leadership.
Ryan Holiday, a contemporary thinker and writer on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life, asserts that many philosophies of the ancient world believed that stillness was necessary for leaders to think, be creative, write and make decisions (2019). He defines stillness: “to be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude – exterior and interior – on command” (xv). In addition, an extensive literature base asserts that stillness cultivates the following dispositions: attentiveness, silence, resting, non-judgment, non-reactiveness, empathic perception, willingness to embrace discomfort and difficulty and openness to new insights (DeWees, 2019; Freeman, 2015, 2019; Friedland, 2016; Goyal et al., 2014; Heider, 2015; Holiday, 2019; Meditatio, 2012; Rakoczy, 2006; Tan 2019; Warneka, 2008; Ying Gao, 2018).
The importance of stillness in leadership was anticipated in China more than two thousand five hundred years ago by Laozi when he wrote:
The leader who is centered and grounded can work with erratic people and critical group situations without harm. Being centered means having the ability to recover one’s balance, even in the midst of action. (Heider, 2015, p.51)
Stillness, mindfulness, and meditation have been practiced in many of the wisdom traditions including Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (Anālayo, 2019; Freeman, 2019; Friedland, 2016; Heyes, 2019; Tan 2019; Warneka, 2008). Now, mindfulness has gone mainstream and is very much part of the secular world.
Centuries after Laozi, prolific author and prominent Oxford professor Evelyn Underhill (1857-1941) promoted stillness as the foundation of social action. In reference to stillness she asserted:
It increase[s] the efficiency, wisdom, and steadfastness of persons that will help them to enter, more completely than ever before, into the life of the group to which they belong…to handle the world of things, and remake it, or at least some little bit of it. (Rakoczy, 2006, p. 106)
It wasn’t until many years later when researchers became interested in why stillness has these and other effects.
Researcher, author, and consultant Deborah Rowland writes on the importance of mindful leadership saying “the inner state of leaders critically influences successful change” (2017). She argues that stillness enables more effective action when we lead from our whole selves. Rowland’s research spanned five continents and examined both the outer and inner practices of leaders as related to change efforts. Sixty-five senior leaders across multiple industries participated in the qualitative narrative inquiry and the findings revealed that it was the inner state of a leader that made the most difference to change outcomes. Rowland identified four inner capacities that can be honed through building in stillness into our routines:
- The ability to stay non-judgmentally present and not be distracted – a noticing skill.
- The capacity to consciously choose how to respond to experience, and not impulsively react to it – a choosing skill.
- An empathic capacity to be able to tune into systemic dynamics – a perceiving skill.
- A capacity to acknowledge discomfort and difficulty as being necessary for change and transition – an integrating skill.
There is a large body of research supporting the diverse benefits of mindfulness and, by extension, stillness. A meta-analysis of 18,000 articles identified forty-seven randomized, controlled trials that supported the positive effects of mindfulness (Goyal et al., 2014).
Anālayo, B. (2019). Adding historical depth to definitions of mindfulness. Current Opinion in Psychology, 28(28), pp.11–14.
DeWees, B.R. (2019). Essays on Judgment and Decision Making. [PhD Dissertation] pp.1–178. Available at: https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/42029732 [Accessed 18 Feb. 2020].
Freeman, L. (2015). The Selfless Self: Meditation and the Opening of the Heart. Norwich: Canterbury Press.
Freeman, L. (2019). Good Work: Meditation for Personal and Organisational Transformation. Singapore: Meditatio.
Friedland, D. (2016). Leading well from within : a neuroscience and mindfulness-based framework for conscious leadership. San Diego, Ca: Supersmarthealth.
Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E., Gould, N., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D., Shihab, H., Ranasinghe, P., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E., Haythornthwaite, J. and Cramer, H. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Akupunktur, [online] 57(3), pp.26–27. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0415641214008492 [Accessed 18 Oct. 2019].
Hayes, M.C. and Flower, A. (2019). The serenity passport : a world tour of peaceful living in 30 words. London: White Lion Publishing.
Heider, J. (2015). The Tao of leadership : Lao Tzu’s Tao te ching adapted for a new age. Palm Beach Florida: Green Dragon Books.
Holiday, R. (2019). Stillness is the key : an ancient strategy for modern life. London: Profile Books.
Rakoczy, S. (2006). Great mystics and social justice : walking on the two feet of love. New York: Paulist Press.
Rowland, D. (2017). Still moving : how to lead mindful change. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Rowland, D. (2018). Leadership development today requires that faculty act less as experts, more as Sherpas. Leadership Development Today. Available at: https://www.deborahrowland.com/new-blog/2018/2/1/leadership-development-today-my-lse-article [Accessed 18 Feb. 2020].
Tan, C. (2019). Rethinking the Concept of Mindfulness: A Neo‐Confucian Approach. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 53(2), pp.359–373.
Warneka, T.H. (2008). Black belt leader, peaceful leader : an introduction to Catholic servant leadership. Cleveland, Ohio: Asogomi Pub. International.
Ying Gao, C. (2018). A Narrative Inquiry into Contemplative Leadership: Concepts, Characteristics, Challenges, Opportunities. [online] pp.1–269. Available at: https://scholar.google.ca/scholar?cluster=5419158117977677381&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5&as_vis=1 [Accessed 20 Sep. 2020].