Why Managers Should Meditate: It’s Good for Business

By Katharine Bierce

Image Source: Katharine Bierce
Image Source: Katharine Bierce

I recently finished reading The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken.  Like other environmentalists, he describes all the harm that multinational corporations and industry are doing to the world.  It’s depressing, but he’s not just a naysayer.

In a nutshell, the way to solve all the world’s environmental (and perhaps social) problems is not CSR. It’s not simply joining the “green team” with Con Edison or recycling your office paper or carpooling. That helps. But it’s not enough.

Changing the world from a linear system (in which inputs become outputs that become waste that goes into pollution that leaks everywhere) into a cyclical system, like nature, requires a change in consciousness.

Not surprisingly, you might notice that a lot of people who care about sustainability also meditate. In meditation, you don’t stop thinking. You don’t force yourself to think about nothing. The word “meditation” is simply the act of placing your mind on something. Usually, it’s a stream of consciousness, one thought after another, jumping around all over the place. In the practice of meditation, by placing the focus repeatedly on the breath, one becomes aware of the mind’s natural habits. As I recently learned at the Shambhala Meditation Center in NY, in Tibetan, the word for meditation is “gom” – which means “becoming familiar with.”

If you want to change yourself to become a more compassionate human being, try meditation.  Just 10 minutes a day  (or even 10 minutes three times a week) makes a huge difference. You might notice that you stop reacting to things and start responding more consciously to the world around you. Maybe you notice some habits about your thinking patterns that you didn’t see before.

If we want to change the world, we need to start by changing our consciousness. To acknowledge the suffering around us, to acknowledge our habitual patterns of thought and action, and to not subject ourselves to the fallacy that past performance indicates future financial or environmental returns.

We need to start understanding the “restorative economy” based on “industrial ecology.”  This means thinking about business like a natural system, for example, a forest. For designers and engineers and businesspeople and civil servants of all kinds to think about some big questions.

What would it look like for wastes to become fuel for another department, company, or industry, like the Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Park in Denmark?

How can citizens nudge government to set up restorative policies?  Such as:

  • Requiring consumables to be biodegradable (pesticide-treated food doesn’t count)
  • Requiring manufacturers to take back everything they produce which is not biodegradable (like phones, cars, and refrigerators)?
  • Requiring “unsaleables” (toxins that don’t biodegrade) to be disposed of at the manufacturer’s cost

The perspective shift is required is not beyond our ability. It merely requires the courage to see things as they are, acknowledge the truth of what is happening, and imagine how to emulate natural processes in business processes…to secure a sustainable, livable future for all. As Hazel Henderson says, “The only thing humans need to scale up right now is our level of planetary consciousness and awareness.”

Along these lines, I interviewed Hazel Henderson and Anders Ferguson, who are leaders in creating triple bottom line value through mindful business practices. I asked them about for-profit companies or market-based NGO leaders whose missions align both with mindfulness AND serving the poor, and how suggestions for how managers can deliver their mission through meditative focus.

Along with Envision Solar and NatCore, Hazel Henderson particularly recommended Biomimicry 3.8 as a leader in reinventing business processes to align to natural processes. (Full disclosure: Henderson has financial interests in these companies).

Biomimicry 3.8 teaches industrial production methods that work within nature’s cycles. Taking inspiration from 3.8 billion years of evolution by nature, they offer biomimicry courses as a two-year Master’s program as well as a six-month program for corporate executives. Henderson describes:

Biomimicry 3.8 has scientists that go into all kinds of companies, advise on what to stop producing, and here are some products that you can re-engineer to be sustainable. Then, they go to the company’s production line, and show that you can do this, this, this, to change your production methods to fit within life’s principles.

Henderson summarized how business can follow fundamental natural principles. “Nature doesn’t use heat or combustion.  Nature creates things at room temperature in non-toxic solvents like water.”  Also, did you know that in manufacturing clothing, you can dye fabrics with CO2 rather than water?  She pointed out that having manufacturers take back everything that’s not biodegradable and making everything biodegradable is just the start.

Henderson’s company, Ethical Markets Media (USA and Brazil),  and Biomimicry 3.8 partnered to produce their joint Principles of Ethical Biomimicry Finance.™  Henderson explains:

Corporations are all puppets to finance, and it shouldn’t be that way, but it is.  And so you have to swim upstream, which is what I did many years ago when I realized that the financial sector is the flywheel for all the social and environmental destruction on the planet.

So my mission in life has been figuring out how to engage the financial players and re-train them, because they’ve all been trained on faulty economic models that go into faulty financial models that crashed in 2008, which are likely to crash again because they’re not likely to learn any of the lessons.

The Principles of Ethical Biomimicry Finance take these lessons into the financial community. And our approach is trademarked and licensable, because there is no way to engage financial asset managers unless you actually have a product, an intellectual product that you can sell them for a lot of money, because it’s the only thing they understand! And Ethical Markets and Biomimicry 3.8 share in the licensing fees.

Cancer cells grow; healthy cells replicate their DNA. So what we’ve tried to do is replicate our ethical business DNA into other companies’ cultural DNA. The way you do this is with licensing. And if the other company messes up your cultural DNA, you can pull the license from them.

Anders Ferguson is a partner and co-founder of Veris Wealth Partners, which is focused on impact investing for families and foundations. In 2000, he co-founded Spirit in Business, an NGO in the intersection between ethics, mindfulness, leadership and business performance. He co-hosted three dialogues with the Dalai Lama at UC Irvine, Amsterdam, and in The Hague.  Launched 11 years ago in NYC, he convened 600 business leaders from around the world from 35 countries to examine mindfulness in business.

Ferguson notes that science was the key connection between mindfulness and better business:

One insightful moment that came out of that [conference] work was that for many people, they’re drawn to this field out of their interest and practices in various kinds of spiritual reality, and those are very informative in creating meditative compassionate and mindful, ethical approaches.

However, in American business, they’re not necessarily all that useful in terms of developing these ideas on a more systemic basis. We are a largely secular country, and American business is definitely secular.

Beyond the spirituality that often leads to mindfulness, the big “AHA!” moment for us was the rapidly growing research in neuroscience, integrative healthcare, quantum physics, and so on. The scientific approach of understanding and studying mindfulness and interconnectedness was one that people could talk about, from any background…people could talk about that.

With science as a common language to describe the benefits of mindfulness, business leaders now have an easier time seeing the bottom line benefits for people who meditate and who are active in business operations. “So many practices that lead to good health, lead to good leadership,” Ferguson summarizes.

Sustainable business practices mean transformation of business operations with some “hidden and surprising” results, like potentially lowering risks, improving potential returns, speeding innovation and better relationships with suppliers.  These can be direct results of building more transparent, mindful, kind, open, innovative, empowering business cultures.

Mindful business leaders help increase organizational transparency and improve corporate governance.  Ferguson mentioned 20 years of research by Robert Eccles, Ioannis Ioannou, and George Serafeim (published in HBR), comparing top-ranked and bottom-ranked sustainable companies. Companies that ranked highly on sustainability metrics took a longer-term approach in their communications, paid more attention to non-financial metrics regarding employees, supplier relationships, and generally had more transparency in disclosing non-financial information. Companies that ranked highly on sustainability metrics also had better long-term accounting and stock market performance. Indeed, we live in a profoundly interconnected world where we cannot separate who we are as human beings from our economic activities.

The lesson to business leaders is clear: If you build companies with people who are more mindful and connected, your business will likely do better. But, Ferguson warns, “You can’t get those good results if you’re approaching meditation like a day on the beach…As any guru/teacher tells their student, bring change into this world, don’t float off somewhere and think it’s all going to change without your actions on the ground of life.”

Admittedly, the world still largely operates in a siloed way, where many believe in the idea of “making money first, then giving it away.” As Ferguson says, “It’s easier to shop at Whole Foods and buy a Prius than deal with whether your investment portfolio is full of fossil fuels and companies furthering climate change. Indeed, the vast majority of foundations still try to maximize financial return on their investments while their portfolios are actually at odds with the mission and programs of their foundation.”

For more on mindfulness in business, see work by Dan Goleman on “Emotional Intelligence,” Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on mindfulness-based stress reduction, David Cooperider at the Weatherhead School of Management on organizational transformation through appreciation, and the Garrison Institute Center for Contemplative Studies (all recommended by Ferguson).

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7 responses

  1. It’s amazing to see the pockets of “objectively” minded folks open up to more esoteric ways of being. Just beginning this trend is opening the door for exponential growth of “conscious” business. There is an online community empowering global consciousness that LOVES this kind of stuff, if you want to see where I featured your article (with full credit given of course!) check out the direct link :-)



  2. Wonderful article, Katharine. I’d like to let you know about a(research-based) book I co-authored that shows a strong connection between leaders who practice mindfulness (what we called attentional practices) and leaders who are deeply committed to sustainability, including both environmental and social responsibility. The book is Leadership Agility. Keep up the good work!

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