Congressman Says Mindfulness Could Be Key to Strong Leadership

At Future of Leadership forum, Rep. Tim Ryan and others discussed the importance of present-moment awareness.

Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, delivered an afternoon keynote. (Logan Werlin
Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, delivered an afternoon keynote. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
September 25, 2017

By Ruth Steinhardt

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University hosted the Future of Leadership Forum Friday to discuss techniques for positive change in organizations and the world. The theme of mindfulness—the conscious, meditative awareness of one’s thoughts, one’s body and one’s surroundings—ran through the day, and speakers and panelists testified to its benefits when practiced by leaders in the public and private sectors.

The audience included GW community members, federal and municipal employees and even international guests, like a delegation from the People’s Insurance Company of China.

The daylong forum opened with a videotaped keynote conversation with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who has written a book and spoken publicly about his own mindfulness practice. He said he has enjoyed sharing mind-body awareness practices with his constituents, including students, teachers, medical patients and veterans, and even with his colleagues in Congress.

“For most people who have experienced moments of mindfulness and present-moment awareness, you want to share it, because you realize how powerful it is and how helpful it can be,” he said.

Mr. Ryan has said that he uses mindfulness techniques to improve his communication with his family, his constituents and his peers.

“Coaches who coach peak performers say ‘Slow the game down,’” Mr. Ryan said. “I think we need to learn how to slow the game down, be where you are and see the whole field—the whole field being what’s inside of you [as well as] what’s in your external awareness.”

In a morning panel moderated by CEPL Executive Director James Robinson, three longtime public servants discussed their own reliance on mindfulness as leaders in their fields: Traci Hughes, inaugural director of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Open Government; David Huntoon Jr., a 40-year army veteran who is now president of D2H Leadership Consulting; and Kari Moe, former chief of staff to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)

Dr. Moe said her own inclination as a supervisor in a male-dominated political field was to be tough—a “drill and grill” boss who worked twice as hard and twice as long as the men in her office and who did not tolerate failure.

But she said the fast-paced modern world has created a workplace atmosphere of “permanent whitewater” where crises seem omnipresent, and that is particularly true on Capitol Hill.

“It became clear to me that in order to be effective and lead a high performing organization, ‘drill and grill’ was not going to work,” she said.

Instead, Dr. Moe watched her children’s coaches and learned how to lead and manage with a little more playfulness and less fear of failure. “I realized that [to create] resilience that serves and supports and enhances performance, each individual needs to be resilient and they need to have resilience as a team.”

Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, delivered an afternoon keynote on the history of Buddhist thought and the relevance of mindfulness in modern leadership.

A conscious practice of moment-to-moment awareness creates good leaders, Dr. Thurman said, because it allows the practitioner to alter harmful patterns of thought and behavior.

Without mindfulness, he said, a coworker or incident that “presses your buttons” creates a stressful, automatic reaction—like being “a Coke machine.”

“But mindfulness helps you to first see that you have certain reactive patterns, and then redirect them if they’re not helpful and choose a better pattern,” Dr. Thurman said. “That’s very valuable, and it’s life-changing to be able to do it just a little—to see what is in the mind and be able to interfere with habitual reactions.”

The Center for Excellence in Public Leadership is GW's link to D.C. and federal governments and philanthropic communities through its work in leadership development.