The Mindful Manager

By Peter Lenney

“Management is, above all, a practice where art, science, and craft meet.” This statement, from Henry Mintzberg, encapsulates the premise behind being a ‘mindful manager’ – a phrase which is gaining popular currency, but one that has been the focus of the MBA programme at Lancaster University Management School, since 2006.

Both the Financial Times and the Harvard Business Review have recently published articles and blogs discussing how mindfulness helps develop employees as better leaders. This demonstrates a wide interest in mindfulness as a development method. Lancaster MBAs would agree. They believe that the Mindful Manager is the MBA course that has had the most impact on their personal development and future leadership capabilities.

“But what does being a ‘mindful manager’ mean? Is it possible to teach practising managers to change their outlook and behaviours?” The answer is yes – if they are prepared to be open, honest, and self-critical of their own actions, reflecting on and learning from their experience.

A Mindful Manager is one who is reflective and reflexive, proactively learning from experience through reflection. A Mindful Manager is always reflexive – constantly ‘mindful’ of her personal cognitive, deliberative and collaborative conduct and her continuous personal development.

Teaching people how to manage in a classroom is like trying to teach swimming by waving your arms around in a damp room. The fundamentals of ‘business’ can be taught in classrooms. But learning to manage is a lot like learning a foreign language – in class you can learn the basics of the vocabulary, grammar and punctuation but you only really learn when you are immersed in the practising of the language out there in the real world. It is a lot like a sculptor learning about hammers, rock and chisels in class – useful basic skills, but such learning never makes a mason, never mind a sculptor.

The Mindful Manager focuses on the skills which enable students to become more mindful, including:
1. Reflexivity – a deep self-awareness
2. Critical thinking
3. Collaborative-Deliberative competence
4. Reflectivity & the ability to learn from experience
5. Understanding of the nature of knowledge
6. Criticality – particularly with respect to the Management/Business discourse
7. Practical wisdom & managerial/business judgement

Underpinning the whole course is the development of both reflective skills, and a strong habit of reflective practice. This is something that managers can adopt and learn from at any age, and at any stage of their careers.

The ‘mindful manager’ theme runs throughout the Lancaster MBA – both the full-time and executive options – for the entirety of the programme, be it one or two years. Throughout their studies Lancaster students practise how to be reflective practitioners by having to systematically, thoughtfully and frequently reflect with a tutor on their experiences. The focus here is very much on the ‘how’ of managing, not ‘what’ is being managed. Students develop the quality of their self-awareness, critical thinking and collaborative skills that are vital to effective managing; in Mindful Manager language – the quality of their reflexivity and cognitive, collaborative and deliberative conduct.

The reflective thread is weaved together with a critical thread, critical in terms of the development of high level critical thinking/discourse skills, but crucially also critical in terms of its view of the contribution of management academe to management practice. Lancaster teaches that the output of business schools does not, in the main, speak to practice, and that practising managers need to become mindful of the limitations of the traditional ‘toolbox’ approach to business and ‘management’ at the same time as becoming reflective practitioners.

Different experiential activities, taking many different forms, are utilised as reflective learning opportunities. “Many things that are vital to effective managing cannot be taught, and can only be learned through experience, by practising.” All the student experiences on the MBA programme are exploited as process learning opportunities; particularly powerful in this respect is the Lancaster MBA’s work on three live business projects. Given the broad range of cultures and ethnicities in the class, the number of different teams in which students must work, and the intensity of the team working; the process learning opportunity is vast.

The intrinsic benefit of experience is not that it has simply happened, but that it has been interpreted, added to a bank of other experiences, then revisited and appropriately used; experience just does not simply come with ‘time on the job’. “Experience has to be proactively captured…one can become very experienced without having any useful experience at all!”

The development of critical thinking and use of experiential learning are combined with psychometric exercises that help students assess their cognitive conduct. These are supported by facilitated reflection on their outcomes. There are opportunities for all students to undertake self-reassessment exercises throughout the programme – and indeed after they have completed the programme. As part of the Mindful Manager programme they are actively encouraged to do this at certain times; most particularly after certain experiential inputs.

This approach reflects a proper understanding that psychometric assessment is not a process that discovers some unchangeable personal chemistry. Personal conduct development may take different forms and trajectories in different contexts.

Active reflection on one’s psychometric profile can lead to substantial personal development and can assist in rapidly adjusting capacities to personal and professional need. Throughout life, experience and the maturing process can lead to significant change, with consequences for managers’ personal comparative advantage and well-being. Psychometric assessment represents the start of a reflective process; it is not its end. This process provides students with an opportunity to enhance their capacity for ‘reflexivity’ – that is, their capability to acknowledge their personal perspectives, ‘prejudices’ and behaviours, and most critically the crucial part they play in moulding their conduct, be it cognitive, collaborative or deliberative.

This is the practice the students are encouraged to adopt throughout the Mindful Manager module, during the three live business challenges where they are working with organisations (from SMEs and Third Sector organisations to ‘blue chip’ corporates) and during live strategy sessions with Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi.

Kevin offers direct engagement with the hard, real-time realities of a competitive global business. Through engagement with this, and personal reflection, the MBAs develop their practical wisdom and judgement utilising the Mindful Manager process.

The 2012 MBA Student of the Year Award, presented by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the Independent newspaper, went to Lancaster MBA Husameldin Elnasri from Sudan. Husam’s MBA classmates voted him as the MBA who most embodied the principles of the Mindful Manager. He believes the MBA is about focusing on people: “It is also about being mindful, culturally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” he says.

Originally a veterinary graduate, Husam gained a research Masters degree and has worked in both the not-for-profit and more recently corporate sectors. Describing himself as having “a keen interest in the role of business in societies”, he taught part of the course on global responsibility and responsible management, bringing his experiences of implementing CSR strategies in Sudan to the classroom.

Elnasri believes his own experiences of The Lancaster MBA have equipped him with new skills, networks and hopefully lifelong friendships. “I can confidently say I have a better understanding of myself, my abilities and to some extent my potential. The Lancaster MBA has also made me realise my shortcomings and my enormous need to continue seeking knowledge and ‘practical wisdom’.”

This understanding and acceptance of one’s shortcomings is another outcome of the Mindful Manager course. For Oluwafunke Amobi, a senior HR manager with 17 years’ experience in Nigeria’s telecoms, banking, and oil and gas industries, the Mindful Manager stimulated some powerful insights. “I’ve spent my entire career looking at how we can bring out the best in people,” she says. “I’d been an HR practitioner for so long, I thought I’d mastered a lot of things. This MBA – and especially the concept of being ‘mindful’ – has enabled me to take a step back.

“The Mindful Manager is about discovering yourself and your capabilities, taking ownership of what you find, and then deploying and developing those skills with other people. It’s not a textbook ‘how’ – it’s a real life ‘how’.”

“You’re constantly thinking and working on what you’ve discovered about yourself. The reflective practice has been so exciting for me, particularly for teamwork and collaboration. I began to appreciate the impact and importance of listening to others. I’ve also realised that where planning and control were concerned, my approach to date had been pretty much high level and broad scope – I’d not really paid sufficient attention to the nitty-gritty.”

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About the Author

Dr Peter Lenney is Director of Undergraduate Studies, and Lecturer & Senior Fellow of the Foundation for Management Education at Lancaster University Management School. He devised and leads the Mindful Manager module on the MBA programme. Prior to academia Dr Lenny spent some 23 years in industry, mostly with the industrial coatings/paints division of Courtaulds, the British multinational (now part of Akzo-Nobel).

Peter’s central interests, and the focus of his research, lie in the area of Managerial Judgement and Behaviour.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.