Career & Success

Mindful Leadership

Learn why mindfulness and compassion belong in every leader’s repertoire.

April 20, 2021

Meet Faraz Ramji, founder of Norda Industries and mindfulness coach, and Leah Weiss, former Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer, to hear why mindfulness and emotional intelligence should be part of every entrepreneur’s skillset.

In 2017, a factory fire changed everything for Ramji and his team at Norda, a snack food company based in Nairobi, Kenya. Rebuilding the business required more than Ramji ever imagined, most importantly bringing his personal mindfulness practice to work.

“I don’t want to make it sound like mindfulness is a panacea for everything. I just think it helped me personally, as a leader, to be more grounded, to be more objective, to genuinely acknowledge the emotion which was coming up and not suppress or deny it, but genuinely feel it and then be able to use some of that data to drive my decision making.”

Weiss spends a lot of her time thinking about mindfulness as a researcher, lecturer, consultant, entrepreneur, and author. She teaches “Leading with Mindfulness and Compassion” at Stanford Graduate School of Business and is a founding faculty member at Stanford’s Compassion Institute. But Weiss advises that mindfulness isn’t simply about meditation, it’s about the intentional use of attention which is essential for leaders.

Listen to Ramji’s story and Weiss’ guidance so you can breathe easier.

Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives. Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.

Full Transcript

Faraz Ramji: People tend to be very self critical, and entrepreneurs sometimes more than others, tend to have very high standards for themselves.

Darius Teter: Founder and social entrepreneur, Faraz Ramji, has found a new purpose from building up his business, he’s now building up people.

Faraz Ramji: It doesn’t matter how many times you fall off and how many times you get distracted, the practice is just like you go to the gym and you lift the weights day in, day out. Your practice is getting distracted, noticing you got distracted and coming back, and then you’re building that muscle.

Darius Teter: In the business world, the concept of mindfulness is gaining traction, and yet sometimes it’s misunderstood. In this unprecedented moment in history, we’ve never been so connected, and yet so far apart. Could mindfulness be the antidote? I’m Darius Teter, and this is Grit & Growth with Stanford Graduate School of Business. The show where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and trials with insights from Stanford faculty and global experts on how to tackle challenges and grow your business.

Today, we meet Faraz Ramji, founder and social entrepreneur from East Africa. We’ll hear about how mindfulness and emotional intelligence has made him a better leader. Republic of Kenya is the third largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s almost been a place of great migration from Cushite settlers to Omani and Portuguese explorers to British colonization. It was during that colonial period that a large South Asian population immigrated to East Africa, including the family of Faraz Ramji.

Faraz Ramji: My family’s from East Africa, we’re originally from India, but have been in East Africa several generations. I grew up in the UK and Canada, and then I came initially to Rwanda, actually to work with a nonprofit that my grandfather had started working with street kids. Then my grandfather being a serial entrepreneur also convinced me. He says, “You can’t just keep giving money away, you need to start actually making some.” And he convinced me to start a business with him in Kenya, and that’s how Norda industries was born. Norda manufacturers potato chips among other snack products.

Darius Teter: And Norda is still in business, but you’ve moved on?

Faraz Ramji: I’ve moved on. Well, I do the bits that I like. That’s what I’ve learned. I’ve learned to let go of the rest and do the bits that I enjoy. So I’m still involved in a little bit of product development, business development strategy, but definitely not day to day operations. There are people who do that much better than me. Mindfulness has been this passion in my life for the last, I would say, 15 years, and it started when I was much younger. I had some health issues at the age of 19 and I was really just looking for relief at that time, and I was looking for answers, and mindfulness more as a spiritual practice helped me at that time.

Then later on in life, around 2007, I founded my business, Norda, as you mentioned, that seemed like a very different part of my life, where I was starting a business as an entrepreneur and going through all the trials and tribulations that entrepreneurs go through. I’ve got to be honest and say that the two were relatively disconnected for me.

Darius Teter: Mindfulness didn’t become a big part of Faraz’s life until later on, but the practices would become imperative during a period of crisis.

Faraz Ramji: So I get a call in the middle of the night, June 7, 2016, and it’s my sales manager who happens to live on site at the factory. I say to him, “Is everything okay?” He says, “No, the factory’s on fire.” So I now rush to the factory, it’s about 25 kilometers away, and there’s this eerie feeling, as you’re approaching. There’s smoke and there are fire engines and police. They battled the fire until 8:00 a.m. and finally got it under control and everything was decimated.

Darius Teter: We’ll pick up that thread in just a little bit, but first I want to introduce you to Dr. Leah Weiss, an expert in the field of mindfulness.

Leah Weiss: I wear a few different hats. One of them has been teaching at Stanford Business School, developing a course called leading with mindfulness and compassion. I’ve been working with the compassion center at Stanford and one of the founding faculty members there. I started a company about two years ago, that’s now a venture-backed company with a former Stanford MBA student and we work with teams to counter challenges with burnout and build resilience. And I’m a mom of three, which is a big part of my time and identity these days, with kids home from school for a year.

Darius Teter: Mindfulness means different things to different people. So I asked Leah to share her working definition.

Leah Weiss: The simplest definition which I actually find extremely helpful, the intentional use of attention. One of the things that I’d point out is, in this definition, you don’t use the word meditation. Now, if you look at the research and you look at thousands of years of practice of mindfulness, meditation is one of the key methodologies, but one of the points I’ve really emphasized in my course is, the intentional use of attention can be, and at work should be present in any variety of scenarios.

Darius Teter: For Faraz, mindfulness has been a guiding principle for the past 15 years. So I wasn’t surprised to hear similarities in his definition.

Faraz Ramji: I think we tend to overcomplicate things in our world of information and concepts and ideas and theories. Another way of saying it is being aware of the present moment. Maybe if I can just add one thing onto that, it’s being aware of the present moment with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. So what that implies is paying attention to what’s going on outside of us, what we’re getting through our sense of perception, as well as inside of us, what’s happening in this head of ours, what am I thinking? But also, can I do that without judgment? When I lived in Canada, we had this, like, sink that you just put all the excess food in. InSinkErator.

Faraz Ramji: What’s it called? InSinkErator?

Darius Teter: InSinkErator. Yeah.

Faraz Ramji: It chews everything up and turns it to shreds. I think our minds are like that, our mind’s job is to think just like our heart’s job is to pump blood. Right? Our mind is constantly doing critical thinking. That means if we’re constantly judging what’s going on around us. While that’s very useful at times, it’s not so useful all the time.

So the premise here is, can we switch off the judgment button occasionally? I’m not even saying all the time, occasionally, to just be in the present moment. What do I mean by ‘just be?’ I mean, just, if we’re looking outside, for example, I can just look around the room and see, and perceive, and hear, and smell, what’s going on in this room without needing to have that mental commentary.

Leah Weiss: If you look at research articles on mindfulness, the common terms that you’ll see are intentional use of attention, and then using descriptors like curiosity or non-judgment, and it is very much about getting back to the building blocks of our experience. One thing that I would point out though, people can hear this idea of relating to thoughts nonjudgmentally or emotions nonjudgmentally, and think that that implies we should starve emotions or thoughts down or thought wipe.

And I always cringe when I hear, and you do hear this in meditation instructions, this idea of clear your mind, because that framework itself creates more reaction. It’s like telling someone who’s upset, relax, it’s the most annoying and least relaxing thing you can say. The settling of the mind can be a byproduct of mindfulness, but you don’t have to have less thoughts to be mindful. You can be mindful of having a lot of agitation, having a racing mind. You don’t have to get rid of what you’re thinking or feeling.

And I think when people don’t get this right, it’s not just a philosophical problem, it means that they quit trying to practice mindfulness, because they try to get rid of their thoughts, they say, “I can’t do that. I’m bad at mindfulness.” And move on.

Darius Teter: I think we’ve all heard the instruction “clear your mind” and thought, “Nope, that is not going to happen.” In fact, when I interviewed Faraz, it was at a time of political unrest in the U.S. There was fear and anxiety about the pandemic, and I was about as far away from being mindful as possible. So I asked him: “What can we do to bring ourselves into the conversation in a more mindful way?”

Faraz Ramji: The practice I’d like to suggest is, it’s a micro practice. We can do it in the moment very quickly, it’s called three breaths. So the first breath we’re just going to pay attention to the fact that we’re inhaling and that we’re exhaling. We might say to ourselves, breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in, and breathing out, I’m aware that I’m breathing out. The second breath, we’re just going to relax the body and maybe notice any tension that we’re holding in the shoulders or in the throat or somewhere in the body. And just relax into that. Maybe release the tension a little bit.

And on the third breath, we’re just going to ask ourselves what’s important now? What’s important now? So let’s do that together now, and we start by just finding a comfortable posture where we’re relaxed and alert at the same time, and just noticing the contact of our feet against the floor. So first breath, second breath, relaxing the body. Third breath, what’s important now in this moment? When you’re ready, come back.

Darius Teter: Okay.

Faraz Ramji: I’m curious to know, how do you feel after doing that micro practice for just a few seconds?

Darius Teter: So, I found myself getting distracted.

Faraz Ramji: Sure.

Darius Teter: Even in those three tiny breaths.

Faraz Ramji: Yeah.

Darius Teter: I was like, “Okay, what am I supposed to be doing here?” But I reminded myself that the most important thing for me right now is learning from you. That’s my focus. The other piece that really strikes me is, we forget to be in touch with our bodies. So we’re running around and I feel like I’m sometimes totally unaware of what’s going on with me physically until there’s a crisis. When you said, “Notice your feet on the floor.” I was like, “Yeah, actually I never think about that.”

Faraz Ramji: Yeah, and our bodies are telling us so much all the time, all the time. It’s really where we store emotion, as in, emotion is a physiological sensation. When we feel emotion, we feel it in the body. So, it’s important to take time to just scan our bodies once in a while and listen to what they’re telling us.

Leah Weiss: The really fascinating thing about emotions is that they’re not in the realm of the brain, they’re physiological, they’re in our body. One of the interesting things about mindfulness research at this point is that there are so many biological markers, telomeres, MRI studies, heart rate variability, cortisol levels, inflammation, all of these responses kick in. So, emotional reactions are physiological reactions, physiological reactions precipitate emotional reactions.

Darius Teter: Incredibly, our emotional state can be measured in the body, and Faraz’s micropractice was based on that same idea, that we could use our minds to direct our body and to exercise a level of control.

Faraz Ramji: There was a program developed at Google, and you know Google gives the opportunity to their employees to spend … I don’t know, I think it’s 30% of their time on a passion project. So there was a guy named Chade-Meng Tan, who decided he wanted to take on world peace. He wanted to increase world peace. He figured out that the best way to get there was, according to him, training on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. So he developed this program for training employees at Google called Search Inside Yourself. It was oversubscribed, in the first two years, it was always oversubscribed.

And then they decided to start their own institute, and they started training organizations, government schools, businesses across the world. And for that, they need many, many teachers. So they started teachers training programs, and I was lucky enough to be in the last cohort. So I did a nine-month teachers training on mindfulness and emotional intelligence for leaders. And it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

Darius Teter: So the Google training gave you the language and the tools to teach something that it sounds like you were already very deeply interested in. You said for 15 years, this has been an area of interest for you. So, I’m curious when you were building Norda industries in Kenya, were you actually practicing this, these behaviors?

Faraz Ramji: Not all the time. Definitely not all the time. There were times that I reacted, there were times that I got upset and lost my temper. There were times when I made bad business decisions with suppliers, with customers, where I let my ego get the better of me. I have to open up and be very honest about all of those things. I think some things were unconscious in terms of communication and empathy. I think I naturally had a more empathic and collaborative management style most of the time. I don’t know if that was directly as a result of the mindfulness practice that I’d been doing, or if it was more natural.

Darius Teter: In the business world, we more often talk about emotional intelligence, that umbrella term that covers all the sought after skills, great communication, empathy, and collaborative management.

Faraz Ramji: Emotional intelligence has really been popularized by an author called Daniel Goleman, and he defines emotional intelligence as having these domains or competencies. So he talks about the first competency as being self-awareness, and then he talks about self-regulation, and then motivation and then empathy, and then social skills or what I’d call leadership.

Basically, mindfulness is at the basis of this. You need to be able to be present in a relatively non-judgmental way in order to cultivate self-awareness. Similarly, it helps us at the motivation phase of understanding what our values are, and what kind of life we want to live, what kind of business we want to build, how we want to interact. It’s the basis for empathy. How can we have empathy for another person and truly step into their shoes without first having the ability to be present.

Darius Teter: Objectively, you look at these things, and we have this saying in English that, well that’s motherhood and apple pie, like, who would be against any of those things. But we know that so many leaders are missing big chunks of this. I just think about, even just the political dialogue in my country, it’s all positional statements. It’s like we can’t even talk to each other anymore. I’m just curious, what are the forces that act against having that foundation and those pillars?

Faraz Ramji: I think we are obsessed with trying to predict the future, often based on our past. We’re trying to predict the future and we are then trying to live into that projected future. We’re trying to control outcomes. Look, this is not a bad thing, this is not all bad, but there are times when it’s useful to have projections and models about what’s going to happen. What may happen? How can I mitigate, for example, in risk analysis? I think the challenge comes when we start living on autopilot.

Darius Teter: What is autopilot?

Faraz Ramji: Autopilot is when we basically are living based on past habits or assumptions. And we do it a lot of the time. Let me give you an example. You may be having your first three meetings in the shower. You’re actually thinking through the meeting you’re going to have at nine o’clock and then 10 o’clock, and what’s going to happen and what he’s going to say and what she’s going to say, and how he’s going to respond, and how you are going to respond, and how you’re right, and you might even have a whole argument in the shower. Another example is driving to work. I mean, have you ever driven to work and then parked up and said, “How did I get here?”

Darius Teter: You drove the car.

Faraz Ramji: “What route did I take?“ And we do it so often. We’re living on autopilot so much of the time, and there’s nothing inherently bad about autopilot. It’s just we’re missing out on the depth of life.

Darius Teter: Focusing on the moment forces us to snap out of autopilot, and that can be a vehicle for self improvement.

Leah Weiss: One of the places mindfulness is really helpful is with behavior change, and the reason this is the case is because when people train in the intentional use of attention, they start to see how the root of habits that they form that may not serve them are in reaction to uncomfortable emotions. Like for many people during the pandemic, there’s a workaholism that’s skyrocketing. And of course, part of that is increased work demands, workforce reductions and so forth. But some of that is also, if you dig under the surface, it’s coping strategies, it can be comfortable to throw yourself into your work and work around the clock to avoid some of the uncertainty that is in our environment that’s really uncomfortable.

Darius Teter: So leaders who misunderstand what mindfulness means, assume that they’re failing at it because by nature of their positions or responsibility and their authorities, they’re supposed to be thinking about the future; supposed to be obsessing about what outcomes they’re trying to control, and their jobs are often structured to reward them for doing that well. So does that obsession ultimately inhibit the effectiveness of a leader and what would be your counsel to them?

Leah Weiss: From my perspective, why leaders recognize that life is complex, and there’s a myriad of contingencies and possible outcomes, so being myopic doesn’t make you a better planner or a leader. I did a number of interviews a few years ago with world class investors, people running hedge funds and so forth, and one of the things that came up again and again, a differentiator between people who were great in finance was that they had the capacity to not react when things were going sideways in the market. An emotional reactivity would often lead to poor decision making. This is a place where mindfulness research is increasingly clear that emotion regulation capacity that is boosted through mindfulness makes us better able to understand what’s influencing our behavior so we can make more thoughtful choices.

Darius Teter: In extreme moments of stress, there’s a benefit to regulating your emotions, but the value of emotional intelligence goes well beyond that.

Faraz Ramji: As a practitioner of mindfulness and emotional intelligence, you are more likely to be a better leader. Now, if I ask you to think of an outstanding leader, can you name a few attributes of those outstanding leaders that you have in your mind?

Darius Teter: One of the ones that I think is really important that a leader is aware of the mood in the organization, and has a vision of the culture they would like to see in the organization, and has found a way to bring their team along with them. And actually, I mean, you can’t build culture as a leader alone. So I think great leaders know how to build a culture with their teams.

Faraz Ramji: What’s interesting is, the competencies you mentioned really are emotional intelligence competencies. Now I’m not saying that you don’t need some technical competencies as a CEO or COO. Of course, you do. But I’m just saying really, when you think about what makes an outstanding leader, it’s often the emotional intelligence agencies which stand out.

Darius Teter: You mentioned Daniel Goleman, and I’ve read some of his work. And he says something really interesting to me, which tracks what you’re saying very well, which is, the research shows that emotional intelligence is actually twice as important to predictor of performance as intellect and expertise.

Faraz Ramji: You’re so correct, Darius. I want to give a personal example there. I talked about my grandfather as being a major influence in my life. He grew up in poverty in Tanzania and in Uganda, lived a very, very difficult life. He’s 87, he’s a serial entrepreneur. He’s still encouraging me and my family to keep building and developing businesses. He’s built a multimillion dollar business in Rwanda, manufacturing soap, cosmetics, plastics, cottons, trading division, and he did this all with very little education, and I’ve watched him having worked with him for about 12 years.

I’ve watched him, not having that much technical competency in any one area. He’s not an engineer. He’s not a finance guy. He’s not a marketer, but I almost think that it’s emotional intelligence that has contributed to his success, because he knows how to empower people. He knows how to motivate people. He knows how to set a vision and build a culture and get everybody on the same page, and really lets people get on with their jobs of technical expertise as well.

So I think by, almost not out of choice, not having the MBA or the extensive educational background, he has not been tempted to micromanage, and he’s focused a lot more of his energy on what he has naturally innately, or maybe he built over time emotional intelligence.

Leah Weiss: Mindfulness research has really put out a lot of different data suggesting that mindfulness supports emotional intelligence, both the internal capacities, what I need to be more attuned to myself and how my reactions are influencing interpersonal relations, but also mindfulness helps me read you better, have more empathic accuracy, more ability to know what you’re thinking and feeling to listen to you and so forth.

Darius Teter: Up until now, we’ve spoken mainly about mindfulness in the individual, but naturally our behavior and attitudes get passed on to those around us. When Faraz’s factory burned to the ground in 2017, he met with his leadership team the next day in what must have been a mood of utter despair. So, how does a mindful leader show up in that situation?

Faraz Ramji: I maybe didn’t have the Search Inside Yourself language, but I think I definitely was quite well entrenched in the practice by that time. I think I was able to show up in a very, let’s say rather centered and grounded place with the management team the next day. And we’re able to take things one step at a time, one step at a time. I actually remember practicing design thinking, human centered design, getting the team really involved and energized, motivated about what the rebuild looks like.

We all sat in the same room, we’d grown over 10 years and we are suddenly in all these offices sprawled across the factory. I was sitting in some executive office upstairs, but we all just sat in the boardroom together with our laptops and it felt like a startup again. I think we were just really able to be there for each other, listen to each other, be vulnerable with each other. Now you talked about it, it brings up a bit of emotion in me. I think one of the hardest things I had to do was let go of, I think it was, 170 people.

Darius Teter: Wow.

Faraz Ramji: Because the company was bleeding. There were no revenues coming in. We kept it going for a couple of months. But after that, we’re like, “No, this company’s going to bleed to death.“ It took about a year for us to get back up and running properly. I think that was one of the hardest days of my life.

Darius Teter: You did it all at once?

Faraz Ramji: Pretty much within the span of two days where we had —

Darius Teter: That’s tough.

Faraz Ramji: To let the ones know who were going to be leaving and then let the ones know who were going to be staying. But I think it was done with compassion. I think it was done with compassion. What I found was that actually nobody, no company, no person is indispensable. So your suppliers will find other customers, your customers will find other suppliers and your employees will find other jobs. Some of them came back to us once we rebuilt, which was great.

But I guess, to answer your question, although I didn’t have the language for it, I think some of these practices were quite deep and I think without over declaring or overselling, I don’t want to make it sound like mindfulness is a panacea for everything. I just think it helped me personally, as a leader to be more grounded, to be more objective, to genuinely acknowledge the emotion which was coming up and not suppress or deny it, but genuinely feel it and then be able to use some of that data to drive my decision making.

Darius Teter: Crisis situations don’t come with a do-over button. So to make good decisions under pressure, these tools need to be embedded in the workplace.

Leah Weiss: We don’t know the source of the disruption that we’re going to experience. So a big part of our role as leaders is to have the tools in place for the time that we need them, when we need this go bag, and we don’t know when that’s going to be. So, this is a place where I think the research on psychological safety and belonging in teams intersects really cleanly with mindfulness practice.

So, one of the key components, if you’re trying to build psychological safety in your team is to have practice fields. So the analogy would be if you’re a sports team, if you’re a basketball team, you don’t just go and have your competitions, you have so many different versions of coming together as a group and practicing skills, practicing communication on the core, and all different kinds of scenarios and so forth. Teams in workplaces need to create these practice fields as well.

Darius Teter: You went through the training from Google on Search Inside Yourself. How did you apply that? I know you’re no longer directly running Norda industries, but I am curious to know how you, as a leader at that time, how did you translate that training into your practice as a leader within that business in Kenya?

Faraz Ramji: I started by actually offering the program, the Search Inside Yourself program, which is actually a two-day full-time program, but because of COVID and everything is done virtually these days over Zoom, we thought two full days would be a little bit exhausting online. So we delivered it over four Saturdays.

Darius Teter: Sorry, one other question. Did you make it mandatory?

Faraz Ramji: No, I didn’t. But what we did was we did a keynote, which was basically a 19 minute introduction to what this stuff is all about. I really requested from the organization, and as many people attend as possible, but it was a request, pretty much the whole management leadership team joined. And out of, I think, the 26 to 27, we had 23 that decided to join for the full program. It was an amazing experience and far more profound than I could have hoped for.

Darius Teter: Say a bit more about that, profound. I mean, profound for you as the trainer or the feedback you were getting from the management team of Norda, was that it was profoundly affecting them?

Faraz Ramji: Both, both. I think for me to be able to bring something that I’m so passionate about to an organization, which was my baby, is my baby in many ways still today, to see those two worlds come together was very satisfying and rewarding. But for the leadership team at Norda to see them grasp the concepts, to have these aha moments, to change their perception and their outlook, to genuinely commit to things like responding more effectively to triggers, pausing before they react, things like that. Having difficult conversations in a more structured way, that was really profound. Like I said, I still engage with the Norda team on areas that I enjoy like product development.

So, every Wednesday at 2:30, we have a product development meeting, and they start the meetings doing a similar practice to what we did, Darius, maybe taking the three breaths or just taking a moment to arrive. And they say, “Let’s just take a moment to arrive.” So the team has basically chosen ones that resonate with them individually and as a team and they rotate themselves and it’s really fascinating. I have some screenshots on Zoom of everybody sitting and taking literally just three or four minutes just to fully arrive in this moment. That’s a powerful practice.

Darius Teter: Faraz has found peace and power in the Search Inside Yourself methodology, and although the concepts are universal, Leah has a different approach to mindfulness training in teams.

Leah Weiss: We can talk all day long philosophically about mindfulness, but if we can’t benefit from it, then to what end? So there’s the awareness, but that has to translate into practice behavior change, application, reflection, dialogue, and increasingly the work that I do bridges the personal component of mindfulness to the interpersonal. And so really setting up opportunities for people to bring back to their teams, understanding where the specific challenges are. Are your issues around a lack of self-awareness of people on the team? You don’t know each other’s triggers, you don’t know each other’s values and purpose.

Are there problems of autonomy? Are there problems of building a sense of community, are there problems around structured rest and cadence of work? So taking these tactical components and collecting data as a way of getting clarity about what’s not working at the individual and team level, so we can base our effort individually and collectively there. And one of the things that I think is really a problem in how mindful leadership is practiced. It over-indexes on the individual, and there’s been a lot of very clear data coming out about workplace wellness strategies.

There was a meta study that came out of Harvard, published in JAMA, the preeminent physicians journal last year, and the data was that these workplace individual based solutions didn’t work either for organizational outcome metrics or for improving quality of life for the individuals. So there’s a breakdown at the same time as we’re spending billions a year on training around things like mindfulness, but they’re not having the desired impact. And my thesis is that because the team component is missing and the data driven component is missing, we can’t meditate our way out of structural issues.

Darius Teter: Leah sees mindfulness as a springboard for collective action, but many companies mistakenly assume that a one and done training approach will somehow create great teams. As Faraz said earlier, it’s not a panacea, but it can shift your perspective.

Faraz Ramji: Darius, one of the things about mindfulness is, I think a lot of people think it means you sit and meditate for an hour a day and then you suddenly become some enlightened being. You either don’t have any more problems or you don’t feel any more problems anymore. And it’s just not like that. But I think for us in the business world and not just the business world, for us in this society that we live in, which is highly volatile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous, to use VUCA as the term. Right? We’re living in this world and we need a set of tools to navigate, and mindfulness gives us those tools.

So, what I’m saying here is, you use my mindfulness in every moment, you choose to show up, mindfulness is not just about sitting and feeling zen, it’s about showing up and okay, my employee just come in and she’s having a really terrible day, and she has an outburst at another employee, and this drama has erupted in your office. Now how are you going to handle this situation? Right? Or you’ve missed a deadline for a big tender, and it’s going to cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars in business because of some stupid mistake. How are you going to handle the situation?

Darius Teter: Entrepreneurs at some point in their life, and sometimes quite often, because they’re taking risks, face failure, sometimes major failures at different points in their lives, and even the most successful people have worked through failure. So, what distinguishes successful people in their attitude towards failure, and specifically how they explain their own failures to themselves?

Faraz Ramji: I think this is where resilience really comes in. A friend of mine calls it psychological flexibility, and I wonder if we can call that yoga for the mind, but basically, yeah, how do we explain failure or setback to yourself? And we can take, say, either an optimistic style or a pessimistic style. Right? And the pessimistic style being, let’s say my revenues are down or my business is failing, this is permanent. This is going to last forever. It’s all pervasive, and we tend to personalize.

I’m a permanent failure, and it filters into every area of my life. And maybe a healthier way would be to take an optimistic, explanatory style and say, “Okay, so let’s look at this failure or this setback and say, what can I learn from this? Maybe I could have done this better.” Not sugar coating things, taking the lessons where they’re required, but also not over personalizing things, and not taking things as being all pervasive and permanent. “Okay, I can get over this or we can bounce back and do this better next time. Or maybe it is time to shut this business or this particular unit and move into a different direction.” So it just gives us a lot more objective way of looking at failure.

Darius Teter: Right. There’s such an important balance there. Being honest about your failings but not being obsessed about whether your character is a failure, whether you as a person are a failure, as opposed to you have some failings and you can work on them. I want to just bring it back to something very simple, which is, if I want to start working on my mindfulness, what should I do, me Darius Teter? So I’m in a VUCA world, like literally up to my eyeballs, what should I start? What’s the practice I should start?

Faraz Ramji: It’s so simple that it might be dismissed. As entrepreneurs, we like complex problems. We like really something back to that incinerator or carburetor or whatever, we like big problems to sink our teeth into. We don’t like simple solutions. If I ask you Darius, what problem do you have right now? I can imagine that actually there’s nothing. In this particular moment, there is no issue. The problems are all created by us ruminating on the past or obsessing or fantasizing or being anxious about the future.

So, to practice mindfulness, we need to come back to the present moment. To come back to the present moment, we need an anchor. So the best anchor that I can give you is your breath, because I can ask you, “Are you breathing right now?”

Darius Teter: Barely.

Faraz Ramji: And that’s it. You come back to the breath because it’s always there. You are always breathing. It is always there. And if you pay attention to your breath, I’m not asking you to change your breath, I’m not asking you to do some yogi breathing, I’m just simply asking you to be aware of your breath, just aware of the inhale and aware of the exhale, and can you do that for 10 seconds? Can you follow three complete cycles of breath? And you’re back in the present moment. The beauty of that is, it’s very difficult, I would say impossible to think, to ruminate rather, and to focus or be aware of your breath.

Darius Teter: Thanks to Faraz Ramji for the mindfulness practice, and to Dr. Leah Weiss for sharing her insight. This has been Grit & Growth, and I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you want to find out more about mindfulness for leaders and teams, or learn how Stanford Graduate School of Business is partnering with entrepreneurs throughout Africa and South Asia, then head over to the Stanford Seed website at seed.stanford.edu/podcast, and don’t forget to hit follow to hear new episodes.

Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Laurie Fuller researched and developed content for this episode, with additional research by Jeff Prickett. David Rosenzweig is our production coordinator, and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Isobel Pollard and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More