How mindful are mindful leaders?

Impressions from the Mindful Leadership Conference in Stuttgart March 22nd -24th 2018.

I visited the “Mindful Leadership Conference” in Stuttgart/Germany. The subtitle of the conference was “Managing the Unexpected” and on my way there, I was wondering what to expect from these 2 ½ days– and what unexpected I would face.

I am German, born only 2 hours away from Stuttgart, went to University in Tübingen. I still have close friends and family in and around Stuttgart, so first of all I was just happy they had decided to hold this conference in this city, not somewhere in the North or East or West of Germany. But also, I always feel that the South of Germany is home of so much entrepreneurial innovation, having small innovative and big traditional companies side by side. Arriving at the airport I already felt home and welcome and enjoyed the travel from the airport into the city centre.

I had been to a Mindful Leadership Conference in Canada and was looking forward to experiencing the German approach. Would there be any difference about discussions, approach and use of mindfulness in leadership on each side of the Atlantic?

How would big international companies approach this topic? I had worked with many of these international players in the early 2000s (like Siemens, Daimler, Bosch, Porsche). To me they all seemed huge and hard to stir. At that time there were no signs of mindfulness recognizable and hardly anything similar imaginable, how would it look today?

And finally, I was really curious to just be there, finding out what people I would meet, how “mindful leaders” would approach discussions, express critic, and talk at the coffee table, what atmosphere would it be, what energy, any difference to “not mindful leaders”???

Mindful leadership is topic!

The conference started very welcoming in a nice and modern venue. Healthy food, flowers on the table, someone in the back must have put a lot of heart and thought into the fact – what we need to feel well there.

As me moved along the two days I got filled up with many impressions, inspiration, knowledge, art. A few remarks here.

Companies are implementing mindful leadership more “aggressive” than I would have imagined. They are just doing it! The leadership development courses at Bosch start at 6:00 am in the morning, participants can choose between yoga or meditation, it’s not voluntary, it’s part of the mandatory program. Daimler decided to switch 20% of the company to self-managed departments. Long-time department heads had to give up their power to make this possible. A small highly specialized engineering company from Southern Germany (Heems) switched their hierarchical system to a flat, self-responsible, “agile” system in order to survive and stay a heathy profitable company.

Some of the research presented made me think. Prof. Hüsbeck argued that companies have to be way more aware of small changes and react immediately to survive in the fast changing markets. This requires openness to complex interpretations of changes, sensitivity for operational processes, highly flexible teams and respect for knowledge and skills of employees. How do we make sure a company is alert enough to do this? Mindfulness can foster focus, creativity and resilience.

Mindfulness can be measured in the brain

Finally, Dr. Hölzel showed in her presentation that there is more and more research done in finding out what mindfulness can do – in the corporate world as well as in the health sector and on a personal level. This is very promising, but when taking a closer look, she highly recommends to methodically improve future studies, secure financing and independency of researchers and foster the exchange of researchers and practitioners. Having said this the results of institutes like the Max-Planck-Institute in Leipzig with Dr. Singer clearly show that changes in your behaviour as a result of mindfulness can be clearly seen in your brain.

Mindfulness is now a tool

After two days it became clear to me that mindfulness arrived in the corporate world and in research. This is not surprising. Mindful leaders are harder to find. I was wondering how many of the people on the stage and at the coffee tables really have incorporated mindfulness into their lives. Mindfulness is like exercise, it’s great to know a lot about it but it is only unfolding its power in practising it, day by day. My question is how do we make sure if we teach and talk about mindfulness this is not just another tool or technique – but what it really means – a way of being – in the moment, intentionally and non-judgementally?

We can implement organizational tools that help changing organizations, remove hierarchies, implement different feedback systems, pay structures and responsibility systems, but if we really break it down, to make mindfulness leadership become reality here and now, the first step is to start teaching and practising mindfulness in its raw substance– and this will promote change – maybe more than we can imagine.

Special atmosphere

I met nice people, it was a nice and relaxed atmosphere, a stunning concert at the first night as part of the conference program. I heard the word “esoteric” way more than I do it in Canada, and I would have loved to see even more “mindful minutes” as part of the regular program – of our way of being together. I enjoyed the Mindful Leadership Conference a lot and looking forward to joining again in 2019.

Want to learn more about mindful leadership and get tools to introduce mindfulness into your personal and business life? Come on an Expedition. (

Sonja Roth