The 'Cooler Head' Approach

Mindful meditation may be one reason some leaders stay calm—and some implode. Dan Goleman explains.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

Masoud and Nancy headed different departments for the same company, and the board of directors had laid out some challenging targets for this quarter. As the stress mounted, Masoud began to lash out at his team. He couldn’t help himself, even though he knew it wasn't fair. His team had been making a strong effort, putting in extra hours to meet the deadline. But he also knew the board was going to judge him harshly. He was anxious.

Nancy, on the other hand, projected calm and confidence that seemed to defy the intensity of meeting the challenge. Of course, she felt stress due to the amount of work required, and anxiety about disappointing the board, yet she was able to maintain self-control.

They were both seasoned executives, but Nancy had learned something along the way that Masoud hadn't. She'd been introduced to mindfulness meditation by a colleague years before—a simple breath focus exercise. After a bit of daily practice, she noticed that things didn't get under her skin quite so much. Scenarios that once would have left her flustered became more manageable. The muscle tension and headaches, those physical symptoms of stress, didn't last as long—or occur at all.

How does meditation help?

We tend to forget that our emotions reflect our biology. They're the result of neurons firing and neurotransmitters connecting brain cells together, releasing hormones that cause the physical sensations we recognize as emotions like anxiety. When we feel the stress headache or that bad feeling in the pit in the stomach, stress hormones have flooded our bodies.

With daily mindfulness sessions, Nancy was modifying those processes on a molecular level, allowing her to recover from stress more quickly and to be triggered less often.

In my book, Altered Traits, I share how even for meditation novices, the amygdala—where the fight, flight or freeze responses are controlled—becomes less reactive under stress. Meditating mutes the lizard brain's impulses, allowing higher order processes to prevail. The more practiced you are at meditation, the stronger the prefrontal circuits that shut down the worry network become. Mindfulness also speeds up recovery from stress, so you're able to get back on track faster.

Mindifulness—or most any kind of meditation—can be a powerful tool in working through stress, reducing reactivity and the lingering ph ysical effects, while improving concentration capabilities needed to address the problem. Even for new practitioners, benefits can reveal themselves early on. These benefits continue to grow and multiply the more practiced you get in meditation.

As for Nancy and Masoud, they both missed the marks in their board presentations, but Nancy was able to get back in stride faster, while Masoud was so rattled he could barely concentrate for the rest of the day.