Three Mindfulness Practices to Improve Leadership

Spring Term CMHC Student Blog No. 3

By: Chrissy Holm, EdD-CMHC, SP specialization student

In this blog post, Chrissy Holm, EdD-CMHC, SP specialization student details three mindfulness practices that can improve your ability to lead others, as well as yourself during times of stress or discomfort.


Mindfulness is the ability to remain in the present moment without judgement and to be fully aware of where and what you are doing without overreacting or becoming overwhelmed. It’s an approach to one’s current experience with curiosity and openness that creates space between stimulus and response. An example I love to use with clients is to envision a spider in your hand. Your initial reaction may be to shake your hand to quickly release the spider, scream or smash it. This can sometimes feel similar to how we respond to stress or discomfort. Get it away! Is it gone yet? However, before slinging the spider in another direction, what if you took a breath, slowed down, stayed completely still and began to look at the spider with curiosity? How many legs does she have? How many eyes? Is she hairy? Maybe she has a name? Suddenly, the circumstances are transformed and you begin to want to lean in and find out more about this spider.

Similarly, by doing this, we can change the relationship we have with our thoughts, feelings and sensations, to be more responsive and less habitual or reactive. You can train yourself to move toward challenge or stress instead of away. There are many ways to practice mindfulness and across many contexts. Mindful eating, mindfulness meditation, showing up mindfully in relationships, spending time in nature, etc. are all great ways in which you can train your brain to slow down and lean in.

I’d like to recommend three mindfulness practices that can help you become a better leader by not only managing your own stress, but assisting others as well.

            1. Daily gratitude

            2. “Zen Ten”

            3. Belly breathing

Below are specific recommendations as well as an explanation of how these practices can affect your leadership skills.

1. Daily gratitude – Write down three things you are grateful for and why. Practicing gratitude improves resiliency and increases optimism. Human beings naturally focus on the negative as a survival mechanism. It’s better to focus on the tiger (king) coming after you than the beautiful butterfly in the air if you want to live to see another day. However, when we focus on perceived threats, we narrow our scope of vision and inherently shut down our ability to be flexible and creative. However, when you lead with gratitude, this positive perspective broadens your view and affords more creativity, growth, adaptability, etc. that is necessary for the types of stressors we face today. 

2. Take a “Zen Ten”- 10-minute meditation both morning and night. Spending 10 minutes to sit still and focus on your breathing regulates emotions and slows down overactive cognitive processing. If you’re feeling anxious, frustrated, disappointed or confused, these are all “intense emotions” and can signal to your body that you are stressed. When you can release that emotional tension, and simply notice it without judgment, it diffuses and becomes less powerful and controlling of your mind and behavior. As a leader, it is important to show up open, able to take in new information as it unfolds, and make thoughtful decisions when needed. At night, a Zen Ten also helps promote restful sleep by slowing down the mind in a similar fashion. Some mindfulness meditation apps I would recommend are Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer.

3. Belly/Diaphragmatic breathing for two to three minutes – This kind of breathingquickly decreases stress by breathing down into your stomach, expanding out on your inhale and contracting your stomach in on your exhale. This method of breathing stimulates the vagus nerve to slow down your heart rate by engaging your parasympathetic nervous system. Chronic stress can decrease immunity. If you want to have the longevity necessary to lead throughout many seasons of stress, then it’s important to keep chronic stress levels low. This type of breathing down-regulates the fight-or-flight stress response and allows you to return to baseline functioning.

Again, there are many ways to practice mindfulness, and it’s important to find which exercise works best for you. Choose one, choose them all, but create a routine of a daily mindfulness practice to gain the most benefit for your brain and body. Similar to how you build muscle in the gym, it’s important to get the reps in; if you don’t use it, you lose it.