The UCT Graduate School of Business has taken an unprecedented step and become one of the first business schools in the world to introduce mindfulness meditation as a part of one of its core programmes – the Executive MBA.
The Executive MBA (EMBA) is the only programme of its kind in South Africa and is targeted at Senior and Executive Managers and Leaders. The EMBA uses sophisticated learning techniques that are far removed from classic pedagogic methods, and the addition of mindfulness practice is another innovative step for the programme.
Leaders on UCT GSB EMBA Programme learn to be Mindful!
According to Tom Ryan, Acting Director of the UCT GSB and Director of the EMBA, and a key initiator of the introduction of mindfulness sessions on the programme, the practice of mindfulness (a form of meditation focusing on being in the present moment) can help individuals to gain clarity, reduce stress, optimise performance, and develop a greater sense of well-being.
“The benefits of mindfulness have been harnessed most notably in the world of medicine – hospitals and clinics globally are using it to help patients to cope with and recover from a wide range of conditions and illnesses,” he says.
These breakthroughs have been made thanks largely to the pioneering work of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of its world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic. MBSR is now offered at more than 200 medical centres across the world, and has become a common form of complementary medicine with proven benefits in reducing stress, anxiety and tension. Further research has taken mindfulness beyond the medical field and shown anyone can benefit in their daily lives. The UCT’s GSB co-hosted, through its Executive Education Unit, a tour by Dr Kabat-Zinn of South Africa in 2008.
According to the convener of the EMBA Mindfulness Sessions, Linda Kantor, a Psychologist and Co-Director of the MBSR Programme in Cape Town, the addition of the mindfulness meditation sessions to the EMBA is a hugely significant step in the education environment.
“The education arena usually involves huge amounts of new information to be processed on the part of the student and it makes a big difference if students have higher levels of awareness and a space where they can reflect,” she said.
The mindfulness meditation sessions, lasting twenty minutes, were run at the end of each day of the first two-week EMBA module this year and will be part of all their modules at the GSB during the two-year course of the EMBA. “It was a stretch for people at first – it was very new to have to sit and ‘be aware’,” admitted Kantor who said that many of the executives attending the course were not used to having the space to stop and essentially do nothing. “After two weeks they started making the connections though – the results were showing; better sleep and energy and a better ability to cope with the demands and long hours of their EMBA experience. The signs are positive that they will continue the practice at home as they see that it can be hugely significant for them in their daily lives,” said Kantor.
She emphasised that mindfulness meditation is a continuous process, not a once off practice, and students are empowered to continue doing the practice when they return to the workplace between modules – the aim is for it to become a lifelong practice.
“The demands on leaders and managers produce a great deal of stress – being in a position of authority often leaves even the best leaders physically and emotionally drained. Leaders and managers face huge amounts of pressure to make good decisions in their workplaces. It’s a practice that these students will find very valuable their daily lives,” said Kantor.
EMBA student Heather Parker, editor of Health24, South Africa’s leading health website, agrees with Kantor saying the sessions have gone down well with the whole class.
One of the few in the class, not from a corporate or commercial background, Parker is undertaking the EMBA with the aim of growing her personal capacity.
“The EMBA is a widely useful degree even though most students are senior business people. It has turned into the most exciting thing I have done in my life and I am enjoying the progressive nature of the programme. It has been interesting to observe the changes that people have gone through with regards to the meditation sessions. All of us have been open-minded and by the end of the first week, doubts had been allayed. We began to relax and do the practice in an unselfconscious way.”
She said that personally the meditation has made a difference, assisting her to better handle the long extended days of the EMBA. “I found myself more energised and able to keep up with the demanding schedule. I have every intention of keeping up with the practice in the future.”
Fellow EMBA student Evariste Katanga, Investment Officer and Country Manager: Angola at the Development Bank of Southern Africa, agrees with Parker, adding that he has found the sessions an important way to find balance. “The EMBA is an intensive experience and it is a challenge mentally and physically – I found the mindfulness sessions helped me to put things into perspective. It is about more than taking time to pause, it is about being more conscious and that is something quite powerful to acquire. I found I was more driven despite the long days and my senses were alert. I have continued the mindfulness practice back at work and am seeing the same positive benefits,” he said.
Chris Breen, Emertitus Associate Professor at UCT, and one of the people instrumental in bringing the practice into the EMBA, says a significant focus of academic theory and research today is on leadership and decision-making, most notably emanating from Dr Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organisational Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management and Dr Otto Scharmer of MIT.
According to Peter Senge, co-author of Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, “even as conditions in the world change dramatically, most businesses, governments and other large organisations continue to take the same kinds of institutional actions that they always have.”
Senge and his co-authors point out that this reactive behaviour is governed by “downloading habitual ways of thinking, of continuing to see the world within the familiar categories we’re comfortable with.”
Breen said that in addition to reducing stress and optimising performance, mindfulness helps create an awareness of one’s habits, including one’s ‘triggers’ and ‘blind spots’ – this awareness is highly valuable for decision-makers. This means that they are freed up to make better, more authentic decisions in a business climate that demands more than just ‘business as usual’.
Kantor added that from her experience working with businesses and other organisations, some are beginning to realise this value. “I am just beginning to see interest broadening – some businesses are shifting the way they understand productivity and performance – and see awareness as one area that can make a difference!”