Calming influences: Area conference aims to create more mindful leaders

As a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and the former CEO of Medtronic, a Fortune 500 medical device company, Bill George has clearly made a name for himself in the business world.

What’s not as obvious at first glance — though he’ll be happy to clue you in — is that he’s been a regular meditator for 39 years, ever since he attended a session on Transcendental Meditation at the University of Minnesota in the mid-’70s.

But if you’re inclined to dismiss him as just another flaky New Age acolyte, you should also note that he’s authored four best-selling books on leadership, including 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis and True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, and that he currently serves on the boards of directors for ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and the Mayo Clinic.

Bill George

On Oct. 24 and 25 at the UW-Madison Gordon Commons Event Center, George will join renowned UW-Madison professor and researcher (and one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2006) Richard Davidson, as well as Roshi Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher and Zen priest, for a Mindful Leadership conference presented by Tergar International.

We caught up with George, who has taught about leadership at Harvard since 2004, to get his thoughts on the importance of mindfulness for leaders in all walks of life. The following is an abridged transcript of that interview.

The event’s website defines mindful leadership as “the art of leading with awareness, insight, and compassion.” Those first two are very familiar to business leaders, but some might see the third as either unimportant or maybe even a handicap in the business world. Why would you say compassion is necessary to effective leadership?

I think compassion is essential to establishing trust with people — to have compassion for other people whether they are your customers or your employees or colleagues or people you meet along the way. Compassion for other people and their differing life circumstances is at the core of establishing trust, and in business or any other field of leadership, trust is essential.

Some would argue that insightful, attentive, and compassionate people are, to some degree, hard-wired to be that way. How easy is it for an individual to change his or her mental makeup?

Well, in my experience, one has to process those early experiences, and particularly the difficult ones — what we call crucibles — to find out what caused that. What in my life story caused that? Was it feeling I was unfairly treated, discriminated against, relationships with parents, abuse of whatever form, rejection, failure? And it’s kind of accepting yourself for who you are, and that’s how you can gain, first of all understanding of who you are and then accepting who you are, and that’s really where you gain compassion for yourself. And I think in the processing of that, as Richard Davidson has found in Madison, you actually can change the frontal lobes of the brain to go from the anger sites to the compassion sites, and that’s why this is such an exciting notion, that with the right amount of practice, processing, framing your story, you can become a much more compassionate person.

And that process is undertaken through meditation or mindfulness practice?

Well, that’s the one I use and that’s the one we’re going to be talking about at the conference in Madison. I think there are a lot of other practices. People use prayer, belief and faith, having a deep sense of purpose, dialogue within an intimate relationship with your spouse or partner or a mentor, or just going inside yourself and being introspective. I think there are other practices. I don’t want to be prescriptive that it has to be meditation, but I think meditation is the one I’ve found to be most effective.



Mindfulness is typically associated with Buddhism, yoga, and other Eastern religions and philosophies. To some people in the Western world it might seem unattainable or off-putting for those reasons. Is there any reason a Westerner should avoid engaging in mindfulness meditation, or is that just kind of a preconceived idea?

Well, you’re correct, and that’s where it emanates from, of course. You’re talking about thousands of years of practice, because this is not something new that was just discovered in Asia a couple of years ago. And I think for that reason a lot of Americans have been resistant to the idea. Jon Kabat-Zinn has used the phrase “mindfulness-based stress reduction” instead of meditation because a lot of people have developed a resistance. I think that’s a tragedy because it’s a wonderful practice. And it’s not my religion, it’s a practice that one has. You don’t have to be a Buddhist or a Hindu or anything like that to gain the benefits of it. One can separate one’s religious beliefs from that. The Dalai Lama himself says, “I’m not trying to make you into Buddhists. If you’re a Christian, I want you to be a better Christian. If you’re Jewish, I want you to be a better Jew. Even if you’re an atheist or an agnostic, I want you to be a better person.” But he’s open to people of all religions, he wants to strengthen them, and I think that’s exactly what meditation can do.

Along the same lines, do you think it might be difficult to convince hard-boiled business leaders of the effectiveness of the approach considering that it’s maybe associated with New Age-y or Eastern philosophies?

I think it has been, for sure, over the last 30 years. When I first started meditating in 1975, I was even hesitant to tell my boss what I was doing or even let people see me meditate for fear that they’d think I was doing something weird. It’s not weird at all, but that was my fear because of these societal norms that are prevalent. And I think they’re gradually changing now as we’re recognizing the importance of reducing stress in your life. We’re finding out that practices like meditation are invaluable. And I think for leaders, it’s essential to have a practice like this. It doesn’t have to be meditation, but a practice of some form of mindfulness or introspection or being reflective I think is essential to have clarity in your leadership, to make good decisions, and be able to resolve issues inside yourself so you can go forward and have the resilience to come back from very stressful situations. I think you need these practices in order to stay grounded.

Could you cite any well-known business leaders who you believe demonstrate mindfulness in their approach to running their companies?

Oh, I think there are lots who are mindful. In terms of pure meditators, Mark Bertolini [the CEO of] Aetna is a meditator, and I know that Steve Jobs was before he passed away. He was quite open about it. And I’ve read about many others who are. In terms of a mindful approach, yes, a lot of CEOs are very, very mindful. Someone like Ken Powell, who is not a meditator but is very mindful in how he approaches important decisions at General Mills as the CEO. And I think you’re seeing more and more prominent business leaders feel they need these practices in order to deal with the stress of their jobs and have the resilience to come back from it.

Are there any you can think of who could maybe benefit from a more mindful approach?

Sure, I know a lot who are “24/7, never slow down for a second,” and yeah, they get overstressed and aren’t effective leaders. They’re out running their businesses and making decisions all the time, but they aren’t effective, oftentimes because they haven’t dealt with their own stress and their own internal issues.

How long have you taken this approach to your training, and how long have you been involved in leadership training?

I first got involved in meditation back in the fall of 1975, so going on 39 years. My wife dragged me to a session at the University of Minnesota on Transcendental Meditation, with disciples of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was two hours on a Saturday, two hours on a Sunday, and I didn’t go in for the religious part of it because I have my own religious faith [Christianity], but I started practicing it, and it really transformed me: lowered my blood pressure, got me much calmer in my decisions, and made me much more effective in my interactions with other people. So my view was, it takes 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the late afternoon, but this is good stuff. So that’s why I took it up. In fact, I’ve never given it up. I continue to meditate twice every day. So it’s a regular practice, just like I’ll go home after work tonight and exercise, work out — keep the mind fit and the body fit.



Has it helped you in your own profession?

It helped me become a much better leader, there’s no doubt about it. And much more calm and more tranquil. I’m not saying I’m über-calm, but it certainly has helped me a great deal. It’s helped me be more effective in working with other people and making better decisions. Almost all of my creative ideas have come out of meditation, and I think that’s because you have to kind of calm the mind before you can think creatively. If you’re going 24/7, it’s hard to think.

What is the goal of your upcoming presentation and your mindful leadership training in general?

Trying to create more authentic and compassionate leaders, that’s my goal. And those jerks [in the business world], hopefully they won’t be around and won’t get promoted.

But they do get promoted, and that’s the problem, and then they breach the trust. I did a show [recently] on Nightly Business Report on PBS, and that was the question: Why is the trust so low? I said trust is so low because we have leaders who breach the trust. We’ve got terrific leaders out there, but they’re overshadowed by the bad leaders.

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