Harvard Business Review Summit on Leadership: Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity

Maria Moraes Robinson and Sergio Chaia

Maria Moraes Robinson and Sergio Chaia

I had a very interesting time yesterday at the Harvard Business Review summit on Leadership in São Paulo. Last year Maria was invited to speak on the theme of transformation and complexity (see Leadership in Transformation in Complex Environments). This year the summit had as it focus mindfulness, with Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University presenting a keynote on her many years of research in this area. Her talk covered the illusion of control, mindful aging, stress, decision-making, and health.

She began by making the point that we are unaware of our mindlessness, and therefore people “do not know that they are not there”. I think for me one of the most powerful steps a leader can take is to waken to this realising of exactly what mindlessness, and therefore mindfulness is, but this takes courage as it requires the leader to really look in the mirror, something not all people in leadership positions are able to do.

Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer

Of the many studies that Langer cited, one particularly stood out for me. In one study of classical orchestral musicians, some were asked to play a piece normally, as they always had, and others were asked to really pay attention and play as if it was the most important performance of their lives. When people independently rated the pieces, they preferred that music where the musicians had been playing mindfully. As Langer commented, this suggests that in certain situations, “when people do it their way, you get superior co-ordinated results”.

The role of the leader therefore shifts from a focus on command-and-control to one of developing mindfulness in their teams. The additional benefits for the leader is that being mindful visibly increases charisma, which therefore increases the ability to influence and inspire others. Throughout the day there were many interesting questions from the audience. One person asked Langer – in relation to innovation – how people can cope with the daily avalanche of information they receive. For Langer, the solution is less information but more thoughtful innovation is better.

Gustavo Caetano

Gustavo Caetano

The second panel session of the morning looked at leadership both now and in the future. Gustavo Caetano, founder of the Brazilian company Samba Tech, rated as one of the world’s top 50 innovative companies, gave an impassioned and energetic talk on the way in which incumbent organisations are having their businesses disrupted by startups.

While leaders in these companies are becoming scared of start-ups, one key point that Caetano focused on was the way in which the most successful focus on their core proposal. Generation Y are not longer focused only on financial rewards, they are looking for meaningful and fulfilling work, and companies that can not offer this risk losing their brightest talent.

In the case of Brazil, Caetano discussed the fact that there is a hugely hierarchical culture in society, and also there is a huge fear of failure, two factors which are reflected in the decision-making and innovation processes in organisations.

There are a number of notable start-ups in Brazil, such as Chaordic who are based in Florianopolis (who Maria and I wrote about last month as a case study in our Harvard Business Review article Holonomic Thinking), who are tearing up the rule-book on organisational design. But the reality for the majority of organisations is that on the global stage, they will really struggle to compete effectively, unless their leaders really start to address these deeply ingrained cultural aspects. Easy_Taxi Caetano rushed through a number of examples of strong start-ups, including Easy Taxi which has been transforming the Brazilian taxi business. Easy Taxi offers a system for booking a taxi using a smart phone app which Maria and I quickly converted to since the service we used to use, which involved phoning up a person for a taxi, was often fraught and we were not treated as valued customers but answered with a haughty distain, almost as people causing a nuisance. The service also benefits taxi drivers, who have a degree more security about who they are collecting.

I did ask a question to this panel about who are the authentic Brazilian leaders. At this moment in time Brazil is definitely suffering from a total absence of political leadership, and this is reflected in the mess that the country is now finding itself in, especially with a massive spotlight on both failing related to the organisation of the World Cup and Olympic Games. It was therefore quite sad that none of the panelists felt that they could really point to truly inspirational leaders.

Maria Moraes Robinson and Sergio Chaia

Maria Moraes Robinson and Sergio Chaia

Maria and I continually look for inspirational leaders in Brazil, and in our book Holonomics; Business Where People and Planet Matter, we write about Wilmar Cidral, founder of Sustentare Business School, Luís Norberto Pascoal, President of DPaschoal, and Sergio Chaia, who at the time of writing was the president of Nextel Brasil, but who currently is the CEO and President of Symantec in Latin America. Maria invited Sergio to join her on-stage as a living case study of a Brazilian leader who practices mindfulness. and Sergio related many personal stories of his career in business and how Buddhism has transformed first himself and then how he approached the management of people.

I will write up this interview in an further article, but one very interesting point was the question of ego and how it relates to mindfulness. As Langer had noted, we do not know that we are being mindless, and we have to ask ourselves what role our ego plays, with its notion of separation from others and fear of others. Developing mindfulness can be a way of paying attention to ego, and how our actions are a result of ego-related reactions to others and our environment.

While some themes such as hierarchy were prevalent throughout the day, also being discussed for example by Lillian Guimarães, VP of Culture and Human Resources at Natura, other themes were notable by their absence. In my consultancy work, I am using story telling and gamification together to really break through barriers relating to social hierarchy, and so I think these would certainly be interesting themes for future summits.

©Simon Robinson 2014

In her summary, Maria presented the Ladder of Seeing, a tool which we have developed in helping executives make the transformational journey from mindlessness to mindfulness. Over lunch on our table we discussed the practicalities of implementing mindfulness in large organisations. Maria has many years of experience in change management programmes, and for her the solution is to run pilot studies first, demonstrating the potential power of mindfulness to develop leadership qualities in executives, and to show how it can lead to more engaged teamwork.

Mindfulness is not meditation, although meditation can lead to a more mindful way of living and being. There are many benefits, physical relating to health, psychological relating to well-being, and social and ecological, as we break out of an ego-dominated consciousness and into a more expansive holonomic consciousness. It is excellent to see Harvard Business Review really embracing this theme, and showcasing how Buddhism can be compatible and embraced by the corporate world.

There are many very striking examples of consciousness and mindful leadership here in this country, and now is the time for the rest of the world not only to see the problems of Brazil, but who the inspirational leaders are who dream of a prosperous Brazil, happy, self-assured and showing others the path to authentic happiness.

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Leadership in Transformation in Complex Environments

One response to “Harvard Business Review Summit on Leadership: Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity

  1. Pingback: Harvard Business Review Summit on Leadership: Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity | kwalitisme·

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