17/04/2013 10:38 BST | Updated 17/06/2013 06:12 BST

Upgrading the Brains of Global Leaders

Google, Apple, Nike and McKinsey are on the growing list of companies to recognise the rewards of mindfulness.

Google, Apple, Nike and McKinsey are on the growing list of companies to recognise the rewards of mindfulness. Carl Frankel charts their journey towards the inner mountaintop.

Corporate managers usually excel at producing real-world results. Not always, though.

As the deputy general counsel for packaged-food giant General Mills, Janice Marturano pushed herself past burnout during the company's protracted merger with Pillsbury. She repaired to a meditation retreat to recuperate, and emerged impressed by the power of the training. This led to an in-house mindfulness programme at General Mills, and ultimately to her leaving the company in 2011 to launch the US-based Institute for Mindful Leadership, where she has helped executives at over 75 organisations, including Target, Medtronic, and Saatchi & Saatchi, learn how to become more 'present' and self-aware. The executives may come away with greater mental resilience - but Marturano is among a growing crowd who think there's a much bigger prize, for the corporations and for the planet...

The corporate genius for achievement shrinks when the challenge is global and massively complex. A merger is one level of complexity. Sustainability is another. As Anna Birney, Head of the System Innovation Lab at Forum for the Future, observes: "The sustainability crisis is a spaghetti junction of cause and effect. It's the quintessential 'system' problem: you can't just pick out one strand and straighten it out. So, to effectively address it, we need system-based solutions. Introducing green products and services won't be enough, no matter how useful they may be."

It's a challenge that demands a new skill set if businesses are going to be part of the solution. Corporate managers will have to be comfortable with complexity, and develop problem-solving skills in the context of the massive interconnectedness of the world's problems. Could it be that we need to learn to use our brains differently? Is a new 'executive operating system' required? Some think so. As Barrett C. Brown, the leadership consultant who heads up the San Francisco-based Integral Sustainability Center, puts it, "How a leader knows is at least as (if not more) important than what that person knows."

For Birney, it means a new understanding of leadership. "Currently, the term 'leader' suggests a person who shows the way on their own", she says. "It's individualistic and typically top-down. We need something different from sustainability leaders. They need to be skilled at intervening in systems. They need to be system innovators."

No corporate product-development team, no matter how talented, can fabricate a new executive 'brain-frame', or upgrade executives to system innovators. Inner work is required for these things. This isn't exactly a corporate core competence. The very phrase 'inner work' brings to mind a culture that, if only in caricature, stands for everything corporations aren't: think loincloth-clad sadhus mouthing mantras on a mountaintop. Yet it is precisely this - inner work leading to inner growth - that seems to be the missing link if corporations are to play their part in addressing the sustainability crisis. Might they one day take to heart Einstein's astute (and cited to the point of banality) observation that "You can't solve a problem at the level at which it was created"?

Google, Apple, Nike have underwritten training that supports a new executive brain-frame

It's beginning to look like they might. Google, Apple, Nike, McKinsey & Co., Procter & Gamble, Deutsche Bank, Yahoo! and the Brazilian cosmetics company Natura are on the growing list of companies that have underwritten training programmes that support the emergence of a new executive brain-frame, which includes, among other benefits, the ability to better address sustainability challenges.

'Mindfulness' is the common theme that unites these programmes. The term, which comes from the Buddhist tradition, refers to being present to what is actually going on around one instead of being caught up in the whirligig of one's thoughts and emotions. Meditation, an approach to quieting the mind that has been practised for thousands of years, is probably the best-known way to do this, but it's not the only option. 'Presencing' (described as 'becoming one with one's deepest source of future potential' by its principal theorist, Otto Scharmer) and 'action inquiry' (a way of simultaneously conducting action and inquiry to increase the effectiveness of our actions, according to developer Bill Torbert) are among the approaches that have helped managers at companies like Microsoft and Eli Lilly become more mindful, without specifically requiring them to meditate.

Mindfulness has four main benefits, according to Marturano. The first is focus: "the ability to sustain attention when we choose". Second, clarity: "understanding that I'm more than my thoughts and emotions and that I can behave more skillfully than if I simply react to each thought and emotion". Third, creativity: "having the spaciousness to find solutions that are best for everyone". And, finally, compassion: "the capacity to be present to, and truly understand, the needs of people in our families, our workplace, our communities, and ultimately the world".

Can mindfulness training help executives better address complex sustainability issues? Absolutely, says Marturano. "By training people in leadership roles to have more focus, clarity, creativity and compassion, we help them see the big picture more consistently and make choices that recognise that we are all inextricably connected."

An increasing body of research is making it easier for corporations to take mindfulness training seriously. Proven benefits include reduced emotional reactivity, more cognitive flexibility, and greater satisfaction with relationships. There is also preliminary evidence that mindfulness makes people more effective at dealing with complexity. "The increasing body of empirical research is one reason for the rapidly growing corporate interest in mindfulness programmes", says Mirabai Bush, Head of The Center for Contemplative Mind.

Executives who undergo mindfulness training are usually glad they did. Among leaders participating in a 2009 mindfulness training course led by Marturano, 80% reported a positive change in their ability to make better decisions with more clarity, while 89% said they had grown more skilled at listening to themselves and others.

Melinda McDonald, a distribution manager for Target and self-described A-type personality (associated with competition and self-criticism), took Marturano's training and reports that it "made me better able to sit and listen, paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that may be driving my instincts on the next decision to be made. I've been told I'm a more impactful leader, while I feel more confident in my decision-making and ability to lead."

With the cultural winds shifting, corporate mindfulness training may be about to take off. Marturano facilitated an overflow session on her curriculum in Mindful Leadership at the World Economic Forum's 2013 Davos gathering, while at the 2012 global gathering of the prestigious Young Presidents' Organization (YPO), consultants Rand Stagen and Diane Hamilton led 1,700+ CEOs and corporate presidents in an exercise which, reports Hamilton, "took them through expanding levels of awareness, from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric, in which we are able to identify with all humanity, to 'kosmocentric', where we are able to access the peace and stillness that is innate to being. For CEOs, this experience is rare. At the event, the vast majority of members participated in true meditative stillness for about ten minutes. Many were deeply moved. One YPO executive told me this would not have been possible five years earlier."

Simon Preston, who served as Global Chairman of the YPO in 2009-2010, attended the session. It "was a breakthrough for many", he reports. "For me, it reinforced that when leading globally, a sustainable outcome can only flow from a world-centric perspective."

Is it a done deal, then? With Davos on board and all those corporate leaders communing with the kosmos, can we check off the sustainability crisis as pretty much solved? Er, no. The shift to mindful, system-sensitive leadership has barely begun. Still, the mere fact that the boat has been launched can only be good news for sustainability advocates. For them, there is no downside in a training technique that makes leaders more appreciative of the interconnectedness of all things and likelier to address sustainability challenges as system innovators.

When astronauts travel into outer space, many experience a sort of revelation. "This indescribably beautiful planet looks like a living, breathing organism", recounts International Space Shuttle astronaut Ron Garan, before adding a cautionary note: "It also looks extremely fragile."

While not everyone can have the Astronaut Experience, mindfulness training delivers something similar

From their tin-can perch in outer space, astronauts experience the interdependence of all things and are seized by the desire to protect the planet. While not everyone can have the Astronaut Experience, mindfulness training seems able to deliver something similar. It takes people not into outer space, but to the mountaintop - the inner mountaintop.

And now mindfulness training is coming to corporations. From one perspective, it's an unlikely development: suits alongside sadhus. Yet if Forum for the Future's Anna Birney is correct, leaders may need to have the mountaintop experience en masse, if the sustainability crisis is to be effectively addressed.

All together now! Attach those crampons and say 'om'.

Carl Frankel has been covering issues related to business and sustainability for over two decades.