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Why so many successful leaders from Oprah to Ray Dalio meditate

The director of the Sadhguru Center for a Conscious Planet explains simple ways to use meditation to improve your ability to lead.

Why so many successful leaders from Oprah to Ray Dalio meditate
[Source photo: KoolShooters/Pexels]

What do Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Ray Dalio all have in common? Hint: It isn’t their high-status leadership positions. These successful leaders all incorporate a meditation practice into their daily lives.

Meditation has permeated Western popular and corporate culture. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, has implemented mindfulness rooms in company offices, while Google’s “Search Inside” focuses on teaching meditation practices.

My own life has taken a full turn for the better as a clinician, researcher, and full professor at Harvard Medical School since I started turning inward. I could ask better questions and lead my research team better.

There are reams of research that suggest the positive impacts of meditation on the body and mind.

Yet there is far more to meditation than simply relaxing. As director of the Sadhguru Center for a Conscious Planet in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, I have seen how we have delved into the mechanics of why meditation can make us better leaders, in both our personal and professional lives.


Meditation can be compared to training in a gym. Yet instead of training our muscles, we train our focus. Each time we bring our attention back to a single focus point after distraction, we perform a “rep” of our mental muscle of concentration and introspection.

This applies to our awareness of our inner lives. To lead others, we must first be able to find stillness and awareness within ourselves. To do this, we must first understand some basic brain chemistry.

The brain’s amygdala, found in the limbic system, is one of the most ancient networks in our brain. It is the part responsible for our fight-or-flight reflex. It can be responsible for those outbursts of rage or fear, that seem to engulf our usually rational minds.

This fight-or-flight reflex is extremely helpful when fleeing a predator. It is less helpful when presented with a difficult colleague or stressful work environment. Mediation can tame this ancient machinery, which is why it is one of the most crucial skills for modern life.

Observing our thoughts and emotions is a key component of meditation. By acknowledging them as they occur, great leaders can remain calm in challenging situations. Our own studies reveal that one 15-minute Isha Kriya guided meditation session can dramatically improve stress and well-being at work.

We mustn’t forget that emotions are infectious. Calm leaders make for calm employees.


Delaying the time between emotion and reaction is a skill that can be practiced. First, practice observing your inner thoughts non-judgementally in a spare moment in your day, and try writing them down. Note how acknowledging difficult thoughts often helps to dissipate them.

By practicing in low-stakes situations, when brushing our teeth or commuting, we can better prepare ourselves for those high-stakes, high-pressure professional flare-ups.

Simple alternative nostril breathing can help you harness the inner calm in five minutes. This can be an invaluable tool to practice before important business meetings.


Studies reveal that meditative practices can boost empathy. For leaders, empathy is being touted as the most important leadership skill in the workplace, for good reason. Yet empathy is about far more than understanding our team’s emotions.

It is about making sure that our team’s mental health needs are met. It is about ensuring that workplace conflict or stress doesn’t spill over into our professional lives. Finally, it is about getting the best out of our employees.

A study we conducted found that Inner Engineering Meditations could help boost well-being and positive work outcomes.

A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that when people are on the receiving end of incivility at work, their performance suffers and they are less likely to help others.


If there is a particular individual who we find difficult to work with, call them to mind. Imagine them ecstatically, radiantly happy. Imagine them extending that same energy to you. Focus on that reciprocal good intention for as long as you can.

This exercise, known as a metta-loving kindness meditation has been scientifically proven to boost positive emotions towards yourself, and others.


Leaders must not only focus on their inner and outer emotional lives. Great leaders are able to transition their focus smoothly between totally distinct objects. One moment, one may have to be focussing on growth strategy, and then in the next moment, on company culture.

These types of focus draw on totally different systems in the brain. Leaders have to switch skillfully between systems and intuitive styles of thinking. This is no mean feat.

Many may have had bosses who have been laser-focused on company growth and ignored company culture as a result. For many, the desire to deliver the optimum working environment may cloud the actual needs of the business.

A true leader knows what to focus on, and when.


Here is a quick, simple meditation to try if you want to cultivate this type of smooth, easy focus between different categories. Sit in a meditative position, with your back straight and eyes closed. First, establish a slow, steady meditation rhythm.

Then, with soft and open attention, focus on the space just above your head. Then focus on the sensations in your skull, face, and neck. Then try focusing on the sensations in your chest, then pelvis, then knees, then feet.

Go up and down, settling on each chakra point for approximately five seconds, or whatever feels most comfortable. This meditation can help us to cultivate the skill of splitting smooth, steady attention between separate, and often conflicting demands.

With the rise of AI, soft skills are reigning supreme, This is especially true of leaders. To become the best leader you can be, and the best version of yourself at home, incorporate meditation.

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Dr. Balachundhar Subramaniam is a professor of Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Sadhguru Center for a Conscious Planet. More

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