Three Core Practices of Mindful Leadership


One of the main benefits of establishing a mindfulness practice in our lives is that it helps us develop a different relationship with ourselves so that we don’t get so caught up in the crap that our personalities go through. After hanging out at the San Francisco Zen Center and Boulder Integral, I’ve distilled three core practices for developing mindful leaders: concentrating, witnessing, and intending. Let’s unpack these three!

  1. Concentrating: Concentrating is about zeroing in and focusing on one single object of concentration. In is associated with doing and there is a sense of effort.
    • Practices include focusing on the breath, a visual object, or reciting a mantra.
    • Applications include structuring your work day into 25 min work periods where you focus on one or a few tasks only. When distractions (internal or external) arise, you track them, shelve them for later, and refocus. Take a 5 min break between work periods.
    • Benefits include a reconditioned nervous system, more efficient time management, and higher productivity.
  2. Witnessing: Witnessing is about zooming out and observing everything with equanimity, quite the opposite of concentrating. It is associated with being and there is a sense of effortlessness.
    • Practices include learning to simultaneously observe the outside world, your self sensing of your embodiment, and your emotions and thoughts.
    • Applications include allowing negative emotions to self liberate and expanding the gap between stimulus and response.
    • Benefits include higher resiliency, adaptability, and morale. One slowly learns to dis-identify with all finite objects that can be seen, including the personality, which leads to a lighter existence, shall we say.
  3. Intending: Intending is about using conscious intentions to develop certain qualities or to move toward certain goals. It is associated with guiding and there is a sense of purpose.
    • Practices include setting conscious intentions, visualizations, and positive self talk.
    • Applications include monitoring your behavior throughout the day to see if they are aligned with your intentions.
    • Benefits include a gradual increase in personal integrity (you’re closing the gaps between your intentions and behaviors).

Without concentrating, little gets done.

Without intending, the wrong thing gets done.

Without witnessing, there is no wisdom.


Enhancing Self Mastery through Kung Fu

Ip Man and Bruce Lee

PRACTICING THE MARTIAL ARTS, such as kung fu, can enhance self mastery. Self mastery for leaders involves recognizing, understanding, and managing the various elements of ourselves in order to increase leadership effectiveness and to have a higher quality of life experience!

Wing Chun is a sounthern style of Kung Fu with links to the Shaolin Temple; it was the style Bruce Lee studied under Yip Man. According to legend, Bodhidharma, an Indian monk, introduced Zen (Chan) meditation to the Shaolin Temple in the 6th century. He stressed that the martial arts were meant to promote spiritual development, not to show off skills or terrorize the local peasants. Bodhidharma is thus the founder of Shaolin boxing and the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China.

Wing Chun is based on several principles–such as center line theory, economy of motion, simplicity, and forward intention–which I believe can be very useful for leaders. I’d like to talk about the principle of forward intention today.

Wing Chun Principle: Forward Intention involves maintaining a dynamic forward energy even when still, which allows you to sense and counter an opponent’s movements with maximum economy of motion. Without sufficient forward intention, an opponent can simply collapse your guard. If forward intention spills over into forward momentum, your opponent can use your inertia against you. If your energy is misdirected, say off to the side, your opponent can use this against you and get inside your defenses!

What Does this Mean for Work?

No forward intention = lack of clear vision or intention, so your attention and actions are somewhat diffuse. e.g. “Our customer needs are changing, and it’s difficult to see how to adjust our strategies.”

Too much forward momentum = attachment to a vision that may no longer be useful. e.g. “Our customers will always remain loyal to our product.”

Misguided intention (off to the side) = misguided intentions lead to misguided actions. e.g. “Our actions aren’t aligned with our strategy! Didn’t we agree on a high volume, low cost per unit SALES strategy?”

Practical Application to Work:

  1. Set an intention for your day. e.g. to have a productive day at work.
  2. Back up with a visualization. e.g. What does success look, feel, and sound like?
  3. Follow up with positive self talk. e.g. “I will have a productive day and check email only during periods reserved for it!”
  4. As you go through the day, monitor behaviors to see if they align with the intention you’ve set for yourself. e.g. “I’m checking my email constantly and it’s affecting my productivity.”
Let’s look at some clips of Bruce!

Trouble Concentrating at Work? Try some Mindfulness Practice!

STUDIES REVEAL WE SPEND UP TO 50% of our time at work not focused on the task at hand. What if we could strengthen our personal “concentration” muscles? Perhaps we could really enhance personal, team and organizational productivity!

I invite you to perform an experiment with your own consciousness and try a basic Zen focusing technique (Soto Zen style, from the lineage of Dogen). Soto Zen emphasizes practice, practice, practice! Do Zazen, or sitting practice, for 10 min every morning for a week, and see what happens.

This sort of practice increases our concentration muscles and also strengthens our capacity to witness, so that we’re less likely to get caught up in the crap that we put ourselves through. The crap still happens, but Zen practice (or almost any type of meditative activity) decreases the likelihood that we identify with the crap. We begin to develop a different relationship with ourselves. What is the awareness that is aware of you?

Preparation for Basic Zazen (Sitting Practice):

  1. Sit with back straight (chair is fine) and don’t lean
  2. Keep your head balanced and don’t tip the head
  3. Face the wall (to minimize distraction)
  4. Keep eyes open, but lower the gaze slightly to calm the mind (keeping your eyes open helps prevent you from drifting off to sleep; if you do tend to fall asleep look straight ahead, and pinch yourself)
Basic Zazen Instructions (most of the following I picked up at the San Francisco Zen Center)
  1. Breathe normally
  2. Focus on the tip of the nose where you feel a sensation of air coming in and out
  3. Count breaths (at the beginning), so for example, at the end of the exhale count 1, on the next exhale count 2, etc. all the way up to 10, and then start over
  4. When mind wanders, if you lose count, gently bring your mind back to the breath and start back at 1
  5. In the Soto tradition, it is important not to have any “gaining” ideas (i.e. striving to get better, being overly critical, or trying to stop the thinking)
  6. Keep the mind sharp and fresh (Beginner’s Mind); don’t drift into day dreaming
Applications to Work and our Every Day Lives:
  1. Condition your nervous system to work in 25 min chunks on a single task, followed by a 5 min breaks; track internal and external distractions; every 4 periods take a longer break; combine short tasks into a single 25 min period; if you finish early go into “over-learning” (
  2. Focus on driving when driving, notice when your mind wanders from the task.
  3. Shit when shitting, eat when eating, clean when cleaning.
For more info check out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shunryu Suzuki) and Mindful Leadership (Maria Gonzalez)