Contemplative Practices in Leadership Education

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In 2011 and 2012, The Center convened a small group of Boston-area leadership educators to explore the role of contemplative practice within the education of leaders. Those attending included, among others, professors from Harvard University’s Business School, Graduate School of Education, and John F. Kennedy School of Government and from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Harvard Professor of Education Jerome Murphy co-hosted the meeting along with Center Director and Amherst College Physics Professor Arthur Zajonc.

The goals for the gatherings were:

  • To understand the current situation concerning contemplative leadership, including its place in leadership education. What is taking place? Is there a theoretical understanding of leadership that includes the contemplative dimension? Do we have the theory and practices necessary for fruitful innovation?
  • To discuss the future place of contemplative theory and practice in leadership formation. What steps are needed to bring the contemplative more fully into leadership education and research?

The Center is reaching out to partner with Harvard and MIT professional schools because they train leaders in all fields of human endeavor, while setting standards by which other universities guide and measure themselves. This collaboration promises to extend the Center’s work in contemplative pedagogy to educational trendsetters and beyond.


The First Session: January 11, 2011

Themes that emerged from the group’s engaged conversation in January include:

  • Opportunity: Mainstream institutions, including universities, corporations, and even the military, are becoming increasingly receptive to contemplative practice. Leadership educators at Harvard and MIT who have incorporated meditation or other contemplative practices within their graduate teaching for a decade or more have found their work quietly gaining in esteem and appreciation among students, other professors and administrators. While there is still resistance and pushback, the noticeable shift from fringe toward the center indicates that the possibilities for introducing contemplative practice into leadership education are expanding.
  • Individual Benefits: Graduate students in training for leadership who have taken courses that include contemplative practice have reported various benefits, including reduced stress, enhanced empathy, less defensiveness when confronted with conflict, and greater attentiveness to their deepest aspirations. It is important to become more systematic in identifying and documenting such benefits, as well as in identifying prevalent deficits in leaders’ capacities that contemplative practice might redress.
  • Concepts of Leadership: A contemplative perspective on human potential can suggest that all people harbor latent capacities for leadership and greatness. In that respect, integrating contemplative practice could conceivably broaden the conceptualization and institutionalization of leadership education.
  • Macro Societal Benefits: The human capacity for destruction, as reflected in such societal and planetary threats as global warming, war and mass terrorism, can plausibly be interpreted as being, at least in part, symptomatic of impaired human awareness and self-understanding. On the other hand, at their core contemplative practices are techniques that build awareness and self-understanding. It was accordingly conjectured—qualified by a concern to appear neither grandiose nor self-righteous—that if such practices become more widely utilized, they have the potential to contribute vitally to addressing, or even averting, major societal crises. By enhancing moral development and creativity, contemplative practices can also conceivably unleash latent human potential, resulting in broad societal uplift.
  • Rationales and Research: To build contemplative practice more systematically and effectively into leadership training, we need better articulated rationales or theory, supported by research.
  • Experience and Framework: Effective contemplative pedagogy requires experiential methods as well as (a) supporting conceptual frameworks, articulated to students in accessible language, and/or (b) pedagogical settings that ensure that the experience is both effective and safe.
  • Context-Specific Best Practices: It is important to identify best practices in contemplative pedagogy with respect to diverse teaching and leadership contexts.
  • Leadership-Specific Contemplative Pedagogies: There is a need to distinguish contemplative pedagogies that are applicable within any educational setting from those specifically adapted to the training of leaders.
  • Complementary Approaches: Books about contemplative practice often dwell on individual practice and experience. However partnered and group contemplative practices issue in their own distinctive benefits. Group practice can, for example, build trust, commonality of purpose, and nourish shared creativity.

Enthusiastic about their discussion, the group agreed that they would like to continue to meet, and that the next few meetings be structured as faculty seminars, led by a group member or invited guest.


The Second Session: March 24, 2011

Ray Williams, Director of Education at the Harvard University Art Museums co-hosted the next gathering the afternoon of March 24th at Harvard’s Sackler Art Museum, where he led the group in contemplative practices involving observation of works of art. Janice Marturano, a General Mills vice president from corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, led the second half of the meeting, on contemplative leadership training in a corporate setting.

In the past five years Janice Marturano and Saki Santorelli (Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical School) have developed a series of retreats, workshops and on-site courses in mindful corporate leadership. Several hundred General Mills leaders have participated, as have roughly 100 leaders from 30 other organizations and corporations around the world.

Among the reported benefits of these trainings: Corporate meetings have leveled out, so that more people speak and more ideas are generated. There is less reactivity and greater openness to suggestions. Leaders say that they now operate less on auto-pilot, and make time to be more reflective.

Reflecting on this experience, Janice has distilled a number of lessons, including:

  • Mindfulness training and excellence in leadership share four qualities: focus, creativity, clarity and compassion.
  • It is crucial to present contemplative practice in a language that leaders find comfortable and accessible.
  • Mindfulness training cannot be rushed. It requires adequate time and follow-up support to integrate the practices and results into daily life.
  • Participation must spread virally and be voluntary, it cannot be mandated. Saki added that, while not necessarily using this language, these corporate trainings incorporate the four pillars of mindfulness: attention to sensations in the body, to feelings, to thoughts, and to choiceless awareness.

An additional meeting was planned for the afternoon of May 23rd and there was interest in organizing a half-day contemplative retreat.


The Third Session: May 23, 2011

by Arthur Zajonc
Last week I came together for the third time with a remarkable group of around twenty leading academics from Boston area universities who teach leadership courses for those working in business, government, education and NGOs. At our first two meetings we had spoken together about the real and potential contributions of mindfulness to leadership and leadership education. We heard from each other about efforts to integrate contemplative exercises into courses on leadership, and also learned about the opening of a new Center for Mindful Leadership. For our third meeting the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Jon Kabat Zinn, who is a member of our group, kindly consented to lead a three-hour retreat and conversation on contemplation and leadership. On the morning of our meeting I sent around a letter concerning our theme. I’d like to include it here to invite you all into the question concerning the contemplative dimensions of leadership.


Dear Friends,

I woke up this morning thinking of our gathering concerning contemplative dimensions of leadership, grateful for Jon’s willingness to lead our afternoon session, and also pleased that many of you are able to participate. Several of you sent regrets, and we hope you will be able to come to the next session.

If I might presume on your patience, I would like to share a few thoughts concerning the contemplative dimensions of leadership drawn from my own experience. Many of you are far more expert in this area than I, but I write as much as a stimulus to others as to voice my own perspective.

This afternoon Jon will lead us in mindfulness practice that will focus on “the primacy of awareness and the quality of one’s attending.” In my own experience, the quality of attention we are able to bring to a given situation allows the present moment to open up and enfold into itself the possible future as well as the trajectory of the past. Perhaps it is the special characteristic of contemplation that it allows us to suspend and sustain complex and even contradictory elements which makes it so valuable. The difficult situation, or even a crisis, is met with poise and clarity if we have again and again found our way to stillness and attention. Complexity is not prematurely reduced, and a way forward that might have been unnoticed or unimagined emerges. Of silence Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together, that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of life, which they are thenceforth to rule” (Sartor Resartus Bk III, Ch. III). Repeatedly I experience the fecundity of silence, of sustained stillness. It is not inaction, but an inward extension of the self, done in mindful awareness, whose fruits are the insights of science and the creative inflorescence of the arts, as well as leadership in society and business.

Contemplation is also traditionally the place of self-knowledge; yet ironically the repeated practice of self-discovery encourages us to look beyond ourselves. We learn to value more highly the remarkable capacities of our colleagues at the hand of self-knowledge, and we vividly experience that every enterprise is made up of the astounding, sustained, and competent co-working of many, many others for a common purpose. Mindful awareness can help me locate myself within that larger whole, and aid me in contributing according to my talents, skills, and understandings.

Finally, contemplation is a means of awakening. Profound change seldom happens through a centrally driven strategic planning process. The truly great societal and economic transformations occurred because someone was awake, profoundly awake. I think of it as peripheral planning, in which one needs to be truly aware of the time in which one lives, moment by moment, and the opportunity each moment affords. Each encounter, every conversation, can be the occasion for a teaching or learning, for an initiative or collaboration. Leading, therefore, is also about being awake. And so we must, as Thoreau said, “learn to reawaken ourselves and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.” The new, that is to say the dawn, is to be expected, it will appear. New insights and profound change will arise, if we are awake to what approaches from the periphery.

~ Arthur

Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and Professor of Physics, Amherst College



The Fourth Session: December 16, 2011

On December 16th Otto Scharmer, founding chair of the Presencing Institute and Senior Lecturer at M.I.T., orchestrated a bravura introduction to his use of contemplative methods in helping leaders bring open hearts, receptivity and intuition to bear in addressing fundamental social, economic and environmental challenges.

Held at the Harvard Business School, Dr. Scharmer’s 3-hour session included a Powerpoint presentation, animated group discussion, and an extended experiential exercise that incorporated a grounding body scan, non-premeditated journaling and guided visioning. This was the fourth session at Harvard University in which the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society invited a small group of Boston-area leadership educators to explore the role that contemplative practice can play in educating effective leaders.

The fourteen participants included, among others, faculty from Harvard’s Business School, Graduate School of Education, and John F. Kennedy School of Government and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Harvard Professor of Education Jerry Murphy hosted.


The Fifth Session: March 27, 2012

by Beth Wadham
On March 27, 2012 the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society co-hosted, with Jerry Murphy, Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and Pamela Seigle, Executive Director of Courage & Renewal Northeast, the fifth in a series of gatherings at Harvard University for leadership educators. Arthur Zajonc invited Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, to share his understanding of contemplation and how it relates to leadership. Arthur recently co-authored The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal (Jossey-Bass, 2010) with Parker Palmer and Megan Scribner. Members of the ongoing contemplative leadership group were invited to bring guests, and the Eliot Lyman Room at HGSE was filled near to capacity
with over 50 participants.

Parker Palmer began with a few words about the Center for Courage & Renewal, the non-profit he founded, and its regional affiliate, Courage & Renewal Northeast. He also introduced “Courage in Schools,” a national initiative led by Pamela Seigle, Chip Wood and Lisa Sankowski of Courage & Renewal Northeast. For over a decade, the Courage & Renewal network of two hundred facilitators have explored issues of contemplative leadership with public school teachers, non-profit leaders, physicians, clergy, engaged citizens and others through creating safe spaces or “Circles of Trust,” in which to “rejoin soul and role.”

He offered a poem from Ranier Maria Rilke as a focus for reflection, and to surface themes related to contemplation and leadership.

Ah, Not to be cut off,

not through the slightest partition

shut out from the law of the stars.

The inner—what is it?

if not intensified sky,

hurled through with birds and deep

with the winds of homecoming.

From his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer shared his view that

a leader is a person with the power to project either shadow or light on some part of the world, and on the lives of the people who inhabit it. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos that can be as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader has high awareness of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.

Parker spoke about the nature of contemplation (“any way you have of penetrating delusion and encountering reality”) and privilege (“anything that privileges me supports illusion”).

Leadership training, he said, should begin with questioning what assumptions we are making about what is real and what is powerful.

The afternoon included silent, solitary reflection, speaking and listening in small groups, and dialogue in the larger circle. The participant discussion included these reflections:

  • “If I don’t know what kind of person I am, I can’t lead others.”
  • “There is the paradox of deep longing for, and fear of, being known.”
  • “What I put into the world creates it while the world is creating me.”

Parker offered the “Circle of Trust Touchstones” as guidance for inner exploration and group conversation, and shared a “Movement Model” that connects inner exploration to institutional transformation. These touchstones and are used in all aspects of Courage and Renewal work and have the movement model has informed the growth of the organization from its inception. He then extended an invitation to those gathered to share the connections they found to their own approaches, and many threads of relationship were woven into the conversation.

Download the report (.pdf) on the fifth gathering