To Mindfully Engage, or Not To Mindfully Engage

December 9, 2013

By: Margot Murphy

Chances are if you’ve spent time in Ross recently, you’ve heard the expression “mindful engagement” tossed around. You might have, like me, assumed that this was a new expression to mean “reflection” or “purpose.” These are not unrelated words, but what I learned a few weeks ago at Sue Ashford’s research incubator (an ideation session for faculty to pitch new research ideas) is that there is a lot more to mindful engagement than just reflection.

Reflection is a passive word – you let things happen to you, and then you reflect on why they happened. Mindful engagement, I learned, is an active approach to leadership development, in which you set learning goals, experiment with different behaviors in unfamiliar settings, reflect on the results, and change accordingly.

One of the main principles driving the practice of mindful engagement is that leadership is not a title – it is a developed state of being. This development occurs depending on one’s frame of mind during leadership experiences.[1]  This seems fairly obvious, but the fact is that not many people a) recognize that they are leaders and b) learn from the experiences in which they exercise leadership traits. I’ve witnessed two examples of this in the past week.

#1 Last Friday I volunteered at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Dearborn, by giving mock interviews and feedback to high school students. This was the first interview prep for most, and while I was mostly impressed at the preparedness of these 16 year olds – a few of their stories really stuck with me. One conversation with a student went like this:

Me: What did you learn from being on the basketball team?

Student: I learned the importance of teamwork and making decisions in the moment.

Me: Would you call yourself a leader on the team?

Student: Not really. I mean, other people always tell me I have leadership qualities but I don’t really know what they’re   talking about.

Me: What do you think they mean?

Student: I guess people look to me for my opinion or to make a decision. I don’t really know why they do it though.

(Needless to say my feedback highlighted the importance of selling oneself to a potential employer.)

 I might be hanging out at the Center too much (is this possible!?!) because my immediate reaction was “Boy. This kid needs some mindful engagement in his life.” While the basketball team should give him the chance to exercise his leadership potential, his mindset was not focused on learning and the outcome was his own lack of awareness and therefore development.

#2 That very same day during our weekly huddle the other students and I heard Ryan Hutchinson, a Deloitte Senior Consultant, talk about some of Deloitte’s positive business practices. In talking about his experiences at Deloitte, he told us about a moment when he realized his own leadership potential. He said, “People kept telling me, ‘We really liked working with you, we miss you, etc.’” He said at the time he didn’t consider himself to be an active positive force in Deloitte, but when people told him this he started to think about his actions that had this effect on people. His story sounded very similar to that of the high school student I had interviewed that morning. Both had exhibited behaviors of leadership (and were even told so), but neither had realized it!

How much more would each learn if they were intentional about it – if they were to set goals related to their development, experiment with their behavior, and seek feedback from others to truly understand what it was that had a leadership impact on others? This kind of mindful engagement could really amp up their leadership learning!

It is so easy to lose focus in the hustle and bustle of the fast-paced work life. Being reminded of and held accountable to our own leadership development, our goals, and how we are actively working on them is important for our own benefit and that of our organizations.


[1] Ashford, Susan J. and DeRue, D. Scott.  “Developing as a leader: The power of mindful engagement” Organizational Dynamics. Volume 41, Issue 2 (April-June 2012): 146-154.