Leadership Learning Community
By Deborah Meehan

I was especially excited to interview Patrick Brown, Director of the Leadership Academy at Greenlining Institute, for our Mindfulness Matters column when I learned that he, as someone who directs a leadership academy with multiple programs, also has a strong personal meditation practice. I expected to gain important insights about the ways in which mindfulness practices support leadership development from Patrick. I did and I am sure you will as well.

1. I wonder if you could start by first telling us a little bit about your practice.

I practice Buddhist meditation from the Theravada Buddhism and Vipassana tradition which is insight meditation. I practice at the East Bay Meditation Center which is all about creating accessibility to the teaching of the Dharma to communities not usually reached, e.g. queer, socially economically challenged, people of color. I meditate every day myself and sit in community twice a week. I was introduced to the practice early and used to meditate with my mother as a kid. I started a more formal practice about nine years ago when I moved to the Bay. I am currently participating in the Community Dharma Leaders program at Spirit Rock, where we learn to bring the Dharma to new communities.

2. How does your practice show up in your own personal leadership?

My mindfulness practice shows up in my work every single day. The reduction of suffering I experience allows me to be more expansive professionally and personally. My own leadership is supported by mindfulness practices and by my study of the Dharma. Dharma, in my tradition, are the teachings of the Buddha. An example I often share is that the time one has between an event and responding can be very quick, and now through my practice, the timing between an event and my reaction is longer. This means that I can choose how to react instead of auto defaulting to a reaction. With time and mindfulness, I can be more thoughtful and skillful about how I choose to respond. I use body scans to center and ground me most days.

3. How has your personal experience of the benefits of a mindfulness practice been incorporated into the leadership development program you are running?

I became the Director of the Leadership Academy at the Greenlining Institute more than a year ago. It encompasses five programs that work with emerging leadership who are interested in advancing racial equity through advocacy and policy work. We have a flagship year long fellowship program, a 10 week summer associate program, a residential leadership program for UCB students, a legal program and internships. I would characterize all of our programs as transformative opportunities. Young leaders come to learn the skills of policy work and in the process they are changing and becoming the most confident and best version of themselves. This is where mindfulness practices have been incorporated. We understand the challenges in transforming, there is this unsettledness, stress and strife in the process. Often I would hear, “this is too hard or challenging” and ”what are the practices that can make this less painful” or “how do I make space for what I am feeling”? This is where mindfulness practices are most helpful. We include embodiment practices: centering, breath work, body scans and concentration and focus work that are part of the tradition I study. These practices support a trajectory towards growth in all of our programs.

4. Have you noticed a change or heard your participants describe ways in which the practices you have brought into the program support their leadership?

Since we started doing mindful breathing we have heard that participants are able to use these practices to limit anxiety in themselves and often share these tools with others. The practices reduce stress levels and provide peace and relaxation, and are very helpful in the process of fast paced and confusing work. We have heard back that these practices provide a calm that can bring clarity while processing things that are very stressful. Participants report that taking the moment to center and focus their concentration, makes the work easier by reducing stress. Reducing stress allows for healthier and better productivity.

5. How might you make the case for mindfulness as an essential 21st Century Leadership competency?

The practices of mindfulness we use are centered around self-reflection, concentration, compassion and deep listening. These are essential skills for emerging leaders because they inspire and create confidence. At Greenlining, we are supporting leaders who fight against racism and advocate on behalf of communities of color. When I think about what they’ll need to be effective in facing adversity, I know they have to be confident  and connected to the importance of their work. Our work is standing up to injustice, and that takes resilience. We use mindful awareness practices that inspire confidence. Equanimity is another tool essential for anyone working on our type of policy change. You cannot be tied to the negative or positive outcomes if you are to sustain yourself and survive in this work. The mindfulness practices are the undercurrent of support to the traditional skills, like public speaking, research and negotiations. New leaders need to have competencies around both traditional and these new mindfulness practices.

6. Have you faced any challenges in trying to bring mindfulness to leadership development?

Yes. I think some of the challenges occur when you are trying to describe the impact of mindfulness practices. When you are relating to a funder or a board of directors, and you are discussing the impact of mindfulness in leadership development, you have to use outcomes they can understand. It is difficult translating the benefits experienced by participants to a language that can be heard by people working in systems that are outcome based.  Understanding these practices as essential new tools is forward thinking and ahead of the curve. When it comes to how to support this work, I think about ways to communicate the impact of mindfulness to folks who are looking at a bottom line or success metrics tied to outcomes as a measure of accomplishment.

7. What advice would you have for programs that are thinking about how to incorporate or cultivate mindfulness as part of their approach?

Insight meditation is an experiential practice. I think my advice would be to open your mind and have some new experiences. Nothing beats personal understanding when incorporating new tools. Consider the whole person of the participant and how challenging transformation can be. What are the needs of participants that leadership programs can support? In the same way I mentioned embodiment as calming and soothing to an active mind, what is it that your participants are asking for in terms of support? By trying out new tools, you’ll hopefully be able to offer a perspective on what could be useful. The field of “mindfulness” is broad and more accessible than ever. A few great places to start are: somatic experience, breath work, meditation, conscious movement and yoga. I would say listen to your participants to see what support they would need and start from there.

8. Your leadership work is focused on racial justice.  What is the connection between mindfulness practices and racial justice leadership?

There is an intersection between mindfulness practices and work on racial equity. When people of color go into a program where they see themselves, their practices and their story, it is easier to feel valued and they are better able to participate. The traditions of some of our most marginalized communities show up in mindfulness practices: altars, breath-work, concentration. Today’s leaders are looking for new ways to connect and share their experiences. Offering an opportunity to build an altar, as we do in our program, can be a powerful and sacred way to honor the community and stories of participants. I share my story, including the spiritual traditions I come from when inviting others to share an object on an altar that represents a part of their story to share. This IS building community. This IS leadership. We always end up with a beautiful community altar that tells the story of who we are together.

9. Is there anything that did not come out in the earlier questions that you would like to add?

I want to offer that I hope what I am saying lands the way I intended. There is an opportunity for leadership development, as a sector, to step up and acknowledge new skills and frameworks around transformative leadership. Even if it’s not in your wheelhouse, or what you work on, I hope that we all can acknowledge that there needs to be a shift around race, equity, and identity and that our work will all come together to advance those missions.