Successful Change Leadership and Mindfulness do (not) Belong Together


Leadership is in the spotlight – especially in the context of change. Even before the Covid pandemic brought about constant changes, the world of leadership personnel was defined by change, uncertainty and the stress they caused. According to the AOK report on absenteeism, sick days caused by psychiatric illness have increased by 56 percent since 2010.  Therefore, it is no surprise that mindfulness programs have gained popularity in many companies. Is it possible that the impact of mindfulness goes beyond the individual in terms of fostering resilience and the ability to manage stress? Could it be that the core of Change Leadership’s success is mindfulness?

by Christine Stütz


A Mindful Leader Facilitates Team Performance

Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches mindfulness meditation to help people deal better with stress, anxiety and illness. During his career as a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Worcester Medical School, Kabat-Zinn strongly advocated for raising awareness and establishing mindfulness practices in the medical field and society in general. The author defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (2011, 291).

Scientists have thoroughly researched and proven the positive effects of mindfulness on your physical and psychological health (Goldberg et al., 2018, Hülsheger et al., 2013).  However, the limitation of 80 percent of these studies is that they measure the effect of mindfulness on the wellbeing of individuals only.

A study on leadership competencies showed that mindfulness programs for leaders had significant, positive effects on their leadership skills. They showed improved self-management, self-care as well as better relationship management and a greater openness to change. Leaders who handle their own emotions, and who have the ability to take a step back mentally, to see a situation from a new perspective, foster satisfaction and motivation in their team (Joseph et al., 2015).

Muscle Training for Leaders

However, some research has shown that when leaders are more mindful and self-aware, their motivation decreases and sometimes leads them to resign from their company (Walsh et al., 2017).  Leaders who call into question their day-to-day actions, based on their personal values, are even more likely to experience such outcomes. This also means that mindfulness programs in companies or the context of transformations should never be used as a fast solution to deeply rooted problems (Kabat-Zinn, 2011).

According to E.J. Langer (1997), Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, a “nonlinear beginning” promises the greatest success, when introducing and training mindfulness in support of Change Leadership. By “nonlinear beginning” she means that the learning process itself should be carefully designed, continuously updated and open to new information and different perspectives.

It is recommended that Human Resources and Occupational Health departments work together on leadership development. In addition, executives should receive an intensive, initial training for several weeks, while continuously integrating mindfulness exercises (via Apps or groups) into their daily leadership routine, similar to training a muscle.

Change Management Needs (Even) More

Empirical research on Change Leadership by Higgs und Rowland (2010) confirms that executives who are self-aware, use their presence in the company in a mindful rather than impulsive way. Overall, they found that measures implemented to further self-awareness in leadership personnel lead to an improvement of Change Leadership.

However, you cannot lead through a quagmire of change with mindfulness alone. The expert on leadership change, Deborah Rowland (2017) does describe mindfulness as a leadership competency which actually facilitates positive Change Leadership behavior. Nonetheless, she posits that in order to implement Change Leadership practices you need to provide meaning, direction, clear boundaries, and rules on the one hand, while also questioning unhelpful patterns in the here and now, and taking new paths.

You manage transformations successfully by treating yourself, your team and your company with mindfulness. Changing the behavior and competencies of leaders to incorporate mindfulness, requires the appropriate corporate culture as well as time and space to stick with it. As indicated by the absenteeism data and the studies mentioned above, it is worthwhile to offer resilience training not only for the entire leadership team but also for everyone in the company. This is particularly important during periods of change, such as right now, with work becoming increasingly digital, remote and flexible in terms of hours. You need resilient and competent leadership, to create change processes, which guarantee health and success for all constituents.