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Could mindfulness be the answer to developing great leaders in Thailand?

In Buddhism, Mindfulness is translated from the Pali word sati, the seventh element of the noble eightfold path. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese master defines it as "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality," but it can be understood as: an awareness of present phenomena in the body or the mind as they really are without and judgment. Buddhists believe it helps one achieve enlightenment; "insight into the true nature of reality"; "freedom from all suffering" and "an understanding that the self is an illusion." Regardless of your spiritual, religious or metaphysical beliefs, most of us would agree that such ideas have little relevance in the boardroom.

Yet, over the past few years a new wave of gurus, entrepreneurs, and self-help trainers, aim to convince you that mindfulness produces amazing benefits in your personal and professional life. Then again, they have incentive to do so. Retreats, books, training courses, and apps about mindfulness are big business. In 2015 the industry generated nearly $1 billion USD in revenue. The top mindfulness app Headspace has raised over $30 million dollars boasting over 6 million downloads globally. Skeptical professionals may be tempted to dismiss the phenomenon as a self-help fad. Believing "Sure there may be spiritual benefits but not any practical ones."

However, this new wave of mindfulness, while it recognizes its Buddhist roots, does not require any spiritual or faith based beliefs. A good example of this can be found in the book "Mindfuless in Plain English" by Bhante Gunaratana, in which he provides simple straightforward guidance to anyone interested in exploring the practice. In the west a large number of mindfulness professionals pursue the practice secularly and Non-Buddhist researchers collaborate comfortably with expert Monks.

This has led to the discovery that mindfulness has many measurable positive effects. In one study participants who were randomly assigned to just 5 days of meditation showed significantly better attention and stress control against a relaxation only control group. Additionally, a 2014 Thai study found positive correlations between mindfulness and emotional intelligence. There is also evidence that mindfulness physically changes our brain structure. A Harvard Medical School study found that 8 weeks of mindfulness practice led to increased grey matter thickness in areas of the brain that process perspective, memory, and stress.

Even so, can a concept so often associated with spiritual, and "new age" thinking be of practical value in the business world?  Well, companies like Google, Intel, SAP, Plantronics, and Linkedin are betting on it by funding numerous mindfulness based training programs. According to a survey conducted by Fidelity Investments 22% of US employers will be offering mindfulness training to employees. In 2012, one program developed by Chade-Meng Tan, an engineer at Google, became the company's most popular program and is now championed externally by The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute a non-profit, established to share it's benefits with the world. Numerous organizations are currently offering courses with mindfulness practices and if you're wondering how mindfulness can help one professionally consider the following quote:

"If we examine ourselves every day with mindfulness and mental alertness, checking our thoughts, motivations, and their manifestations in external behavior, a possibility for change and self-improvement can open within us." – Dalai Lama 2014

From an HR standpoint the benefits of mindfulness and the structure of best practice leadership development programs have three common elements:

- Self-Awareness is a cornerstone of most leadership programs. To influence others you must first understand your own habits, emotions and behaviors. Mindfulness helps you experience the range and depth of your emotions without clouding them with judgements or reactions. Allowing time for the mind to process information overload and refocus is critical in the digital age.

- Empathy is also an important leadership concept. It's hard to deny that strong credible relationships can make or break a business. Mindfulness helps you be more present and attentive to colleagues and fosters feelings of compassion that enable in-depth understanding.

- Self-Regulation & Stress Management can be an easily overlooked leadership skill. Stressful situations often bring out bad habits. When one comment can make or break a deal or destroy a relationship managing emotional triggers is critical. Mindfulness helps you build a greater understanding of these triggers and encourages a contemplative pause before reacting.

There is also practical evidence demonstrating the positive impacts of these programs. The SIYLI reports positive changes in time management, self-regulation, attention and stress from pre/post program surveys. And one study conducted at SAP demonstrated increases in Engagement (6.5%), Creativity (12.2%), and Collaboration (5.2%) a full six months after offering a single course. Manish Chopra, a partner at McKinsey has stated "attendees [of our mindfulness programs] are consistently seeing an increase in focus time….[and] they are…getting more done."

So, are the employees in these companies spending long hours in dark rooms with candles chanting mantras? Well, how they spend their weekends is their own business, but fortunately the benefits of mindfulness can be gained in a surprisingly short time. One can start to feel calmness, comfort and clarity by simply observing one's own breathing for three minutes before a stressful meeting. Longer lasting benefits can be realized from regular five to ten minute practices. Mark Williams, a psychology professor and mindfulness author at Oxford University recommends eight weeks of regular mindfulness practices to reveal their full potential. These practices can take many forms, the key is that they involve observing your body or your mind nonjudgmentally.

Utilizing mindfulness as a tool to build stronger professionals, and leaders could prove highly effective in Thailand. 90% of Thailand's population is Buddhist, and likely to be interested in practices rooted in its religious traditions. Indeed, a 2014 national survey indicated that 45% of Thai's meditate and this is trending upward. Additionally, cross-cultural and multi-generational conflicts can create charged emotions that stand in the way of progress and personal development. Mindfulness provides a tool and language to better self-regulate in these situations and ultimately accelerate team performance.

While our insights do not suggest that mindfulness leadership programs are more effective than other similar programs, professionals can ask themselves "If there are many paths to becoming a successful leader, why not choose one that just might also lead to personal Enlightenment and Nirvana."


Justin Paul is the CEO of Latchmere Performance Solutions, a company that helps business develop global leaders and high-performance cultures. Contact: Justin@LatchmereConsulting.com or www.Latchmereconsulting.com.