The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 35

Matt Tenney

The Mindfulness Edge

Does better self-awareness make you a better leader? Matt Tenney thinks so. He’s the author of The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule. Matt asserts that by paying more attention to our bodies and how we interact with the world, we can “rewire” our brains to be more conducive to effective leadership. Learn a simple technique to become more mindful–which Matt practices with us right on the podcast–and hear the incredible story that led him to where he is today.


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Book: The Mindfulness Edge
Bio: Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom. He is also an international keynote speaker, a trainer, and a consultant with the prestigious Perth Leadership Institute, whose clients include numerous Fortune 500 companies. He works with companies, associations, universities, and non-profits to develop highly effective leaders who achieve lasting success by focusing on serving and inspiring greatness in the people around them. Matt envisions a world where the vast majority of people realize that effectively serving others is the key to true greatness. When he’s not traveling for speaking engagements, he can often be found in Nashville, TN.


Peter : Here with me today is Matt Tenney. Matt wrote the book The Mindfulness Edge: How to rewire your brain for leadership and personal excellence without adding to your schedule. Basically, we always want to do things that give us a productive advantage that doesn’t actually add to our schedule. This is an interesting podcast to listen to. Matt has a very interesting background which we are going to hear about that he talks about in the book, I’ll share with us today in the podcast of what brought him into this work. The book was really an excellent book that I really fully enjoyed. Matt, welcome to the Bregman Leadership podcast.

Matt : Thank you Peter, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Peter : What led you to write this book, and what’s the big idea in the book?

Matt : It was actually the response that I’ve been getting from audiences. I do a lot of keno speeches at conferences and training. Often times I’ve focused on servant leadership as the big idea. I offer mindfulness as a very effective way to be able to serve team members at a higher level through our own personal development. Interestingly, it seemed like almost every single talk, most of the questions I got were on mindfulness, and the people wanted to know more about it, and how to do it. I wasn’t planning actually on writing this book for a couple more years, but that’s just how it happened. I realized there is a very powerful thirst for it.

The big idea of the book is that, I think you kind of alluded to it just in the title, which is what we’re hoping for with the title of the book is that, here’s a practice that, without adding, or necessarily adding anything to your schedule, you don’t have to add anything to your schedule. You can just change your default mode of operating through much of your daily activities, and by doing that, you can actually rewire your brain to function in ways that are much more conducive to effective leadership. That’s the big idea.

Peter : Mindfulness has become very popular over the last decade or so. It’s increasing in popularity at least. Can you give us a basic explanation of it so the people who maybe haven’t become familiar with it understand the basics of what we’re talking about when we say mindfulness?

Matt : Sure, yeah, in fact I think the increasing popularity has done some work to make it less clear what mindfulness is, so this may be a good place to start. I often hear people, when I think of mindfulness they think of some type of focus work, or going to some quiet place and sitting still. Of course, taking time to sit still can be very little valuable practice, and we talk about it at length in the book.

However, really what mindfulness is, it’s not some technique, it’s nothing magical, it’s something that we actually do many times every day anyhow. Anytime that we wake up and recognize our own thinking, we become aware of our own emotional state in the body, that’s actually what mindfulness is. Problem is that most of us don’t do that intentionally, and we’re not able to sustain it for very long, especially in demanding situations.

To me, being mindful is making next shift, it’s shifting away from being identified with our thinking, which makes us very habitual and how we respond to life, and it’s moving away from that to where we are actually aware, we can see our thinking objectively, and that frees us up to respond to situations based on our values, and with a certain amount of agility that people who can’t do that aren’t going to have.

The practice is learning to do that, which again, people already do this, so it’s not like this is something new that you’ve never done before. The practice is learning to do it intentionally, making that habit throughout your day, and learning to try to sustain it for longer periods of time, and that’s where we start to see changes in the brain, and changes in behavior.

Peter : Is it possible that people might be too mindful? Sometimes maybe it’s good to veg out or read a book while I’m eating as opposed to focus on my eating. Is that a mistake? Is there a level at which being too aware of what we’re doing at every moment might even be self-involved? Or might even be, in some ways, keeping us working hard, when what we really want to do is relax and let go?

Matt : If we practice incorrectly I think that can certainly be the case. I think if we are making mindfulness a chore, just one more thing that we have to do, then we’re probably not going to get very far. In fact, if we are practicing correctly, the practice should actually be … Should feel very much like relaxing and letting go. Because that’s essentially what we’re doing, we’re not working so hard to be in there talking to ourselves and trying to fix every issue that’s spinning around in our brains. It’s not so much of and adding to, or a doing as it is in letting go.

That letting go just to this awareness of what’s happening internally, both with our thoughts and emotions. If the practice correctly, I don’t think there is really a limit. I don’t think you can do it too much. It’s something that, again, if done correctly, there are no negative side effects to this. If there is some slight misunderstanding about the practice, and we practice incorrectly, there certainly can be. Especially if we’ve had a trauma in our past, or something like that, there can be some pretty serious things to work through. What we’re not saying here, and what I definitely don’t say in the book is that we should be doing this 24/7. We should definitely have intentional periods of time where we plan, and analyze, and think. I think there should also be time where we intentionally let our minds wander.

There is research suggesting that we are much more likely to have creative thought, and creative connection between ideas when we’re not making any effort to pay attention, and just letting the mind wander. The idea here is to be much more intentional about when we do those things. I think for most of us, our default is, our mind is just constantly going, we’re talking to ourselves, we are judging, we are analyzing, we’re critiquing, and we don’t really have an ability to be free from that, and the training is to say, well, now we have the choice. If I want to get in there and wrestle around with thinking, or if I want to just let my mind wander to induce creativity I can do that.

As a default, I have the ability to see myself objectively, I have this objective self-awareness that allows me to respond in demanding situations with much greater clarity, with much greater intentionality, and much more aligned with values.

Peter : You make this distinction between practicing correctly and practicing incorrectly. I wonder if you can give us an experience of mindfulness now. Really 30 seconds, a minute, whatever it is, where you guide us to be mindful in a way that would fit the category of “correctly.”

Matt : Sure. I guess practicing incorrectly may be a little bit of a misnomer. It’s just that there is a sweet spot where the practice becomes very easy, and highly effective. There’s lots of techniques that are kind of dance around that sweet spot, and the idea is to facilitate us getting to that sweet spot. The actual sweet spot is so simple, and so easy that we overlook it, and we want to do something else. We want to go build focus, or concentration, or something like that. I’m standing right now, I like to work at a standing desk, so whether you’re standing or sitting, you can just do the same thing.

Really the practice is just to … It can be very easily initiated by having what we call a beginner’s mind. That’s just having this open, curious awareness about what is actually happening right now. You could just start with a question, just ask yourself internally, what is it like to stand right now? Or what is it like to set? Just open your senses up and see what you noticed. You’re not looking for anything in particular, just open. You might notice with the feet feel like on the floor, or what your legs feel like pressed against the seat. You might notice sounds in the room, or in an adjacent room. You might even notice the fact that you’re breathing. For instance, if your eyes are open and you’re looking outward, you might have the sense that as you’re looking outward, it’s almost as though you’re looking back at yourself, just observing yourself standing or sitting. Aware of what it feels like to either stand or sit, and just with this general awareness.

What I usually like to recommend, if we are static, if we’re not moving, is to just try to maintain that curious open awareness for the duration of one in breath, and then again try to do it again for one out breath. You might even use mental noting to help. As you breathe then you might just note, in. What’s happening now? Out. Now? You can just keep that attitude, that curious attitude of, as you breathe in, what’s this moment like? Out, what’s happening now? Nothing super magical there, it’s not mind blowing.

Again, this is a very ordinary experience, something we do all the time. What you might notice is, especially if somebody has been really caught up in their thinking is that, all of a sudden you realize, wow, I’m aware of the thoughts going through my mind, and they’re not pulling me away from what else is happening right now. The magic is in learning to sustain that. That’s why I like to use that timer of one in breath and one out breath. Instead of saying, “Okay, I want to try to sustain this for my entire walk to the train, or I want to try to sustain this for an entire 10 minutes sitting still while I commute, or 2 minutes while brushing my teeth.” The idea is, if we’re still, to just use a very short timer. I just want to have that curious attitude for one in breath, and then they breathe out I want to try to do it again. That’s it.

Peter : That’s great, thank you.

Matt : Sure.

Peter : Help me connect this to leadership. You talk a lot in the book, and we’ve talked about this briefly, about the importance of mindfulness for leaders. Can you offer advice to people who are leading organizations, or leading people, about how they can take advantage of mindfulness.

Matt : Sure. Well, there’s a lot of topics to touch on here.

Peter : It’s a big question.

Matt : Yes, maybe we’ll start with the general idea, and that you can pin me down and go more specific as to what you think would be most valuable for your listeners. I think that in the broadest sense, the idea is that we are cultivating a self-awareness. There are very few people that I met that would argue that self-awareness is the most important skill we can develop as a leader.

The reason for that is that, self-awareness is the foundation of good decision-making, it’s the foundation of knowing our strengths and weaknesses, it’s the foundation of emotional intelligence, which, if anyone’s familiar with the research of Daniel Goldman, and Richard Boyatzis suggested that emotional intelligence counts for as much as 90% of what separates stellar leaders from average one. I think people are familiar with this idea, we hear about self-awareness a lot, but maybe we’re not aware that there is a way to systematically train, to change our brain in ways that allow us to be, not only self-aware situations where he might not normally be self-aware, which for most people is when we are under stress, and we have a stress-free response is activated in the body.

What tends to happen is we become much more habitual, and not self-aware. There also might be the case where people do have the ability to be more self-aware in a stressful situation, but our self-awareness isn’t very refined. We might be aware of very non subtle aspects of our behavior and decision-making, but some of the more subtle aspects we’re not. The idea here is that we can, not only trained to have this objective self-awareness that we can execute on demand, we can have that awareness whenever we like, even if the situation is very demanding. Which is just going to improve our effectiveness incredibly in a demanding situation, because again, it improves decision-making and emotional intelligence.

You can also really, really refine that self-awareness. There’s some research we talk about in the book of people being able to notice things. For instance, physiological characteristics, like the space between heartbeats, that most people just can’t do. There is research that we didn’t include in the book, because I don’t think it was ever published, of people with many hours of training of mindfulness who are able to actually even self-report their clarity of perception in a way that correlates very strongly to EEG reading of their brain activity, which untrained people, not only did they not have a correlation there, but they actually had a negative correlation.

The idea is that we can take our self-awareness, and refine it to very high levels, and this of course is the key to self-mastery. The better that we understand ourselves, our habitual ways of acting, and deciding, our habitual ways of reacting to people and situations, the better we are going to be able to respond in a way that’s effective.

Peter : You said it changes the brain. It’s not just something we’re learning how to do, but we’re literally changing the brain?

Matt : Yes. I don’t think that the scientific community is ready to call this knowledge yet, but there is a growing body of evidence. I think there were over 1500 studies last year that were published, pre-reviewed studies on mindfulness, and a good number of those were in the field of neuroscience. The co-author of the book, Tim Gard, is actually a neuroscientist who is trained at Harvard. This is what he’s focusing his whole career on, is this idea that there are several studies that show pretty clearly that we’re changing the brain, not only how it functions, but even the physical structure of the brain by simply using our minds when we are engaged in mindfulness training.

Some of the challenges with this research is that it’s … The brain is very difficult to measure, it’s hard to control some of the variables, researchers are getting better and better at this, and there are now some fairly well-controlled studies that are replicated. I think we’re getting close to where the scientific community is going to say, we would call this knowledge, that if you’re engaging in mindfulness training, you are definitely changing both the function and physical structure of your brain.

Peter : The way that we are changing the brain is that we are increasing the brain’s capacity, likelihood, ease with which it focuses on the present moment, and increases our self-awareness, am I stating this correctly?

Matt : Those 2 elements have been researched quite extensively actually. I think after perhaps increasing our resilience to stressful situations, I think attention is probably the 2nd most studied aspect of mindfulness, because that’s what it is, it’s attention training. Here’s a general idea for you that I think can really hit it home, is there’s this general idea of a narrow network that’s called the default mode network, and that many neuroscientists talk about.

This is how most people spend most of their time, is these areas of the brain are engaged, and they’re midline areas of the brain, and it’s a very habitual, self-referential neural network. When we make the shift to being mindful, you can actually see the brain activity shift away from this default mode network to a more objective view of self. That’s actually watching brains in action. Then there are also studies that show that, over time, there are physical changes, whether it’s … We’re not quite sure, and I don’t think there’s anyone that’s exactly sure what’s being changed, whether it’s just increased amount of vasculature in the brain, or new dendrite on the brain cells, or even new neurons. All of those could be possible.

What we do know is that you can see that certain areas of the brain become thicker, which means that there are more robust, and more likely to be able to carry out a behavior. Some of the areas that we know that, that happens are highly associated with self-awareness, and attention regulation. Also self-regulation, this ability to regulate emotion.

Peter : Distinguish between meditating and mindfulness. Meditating actually takes me 20 minutes in the morning, or 20 minutes in the evening. What you’re saying is that you can get the same results – and save that time – by simply being mindful about what you’re doing, and when you’re doing it, and that you can continue to do whatever it is that you do, but just shifting your mind’s focus ends up getting the same results as meditating. Am I understanding that right, or am I overstating it?

Matt : Very close, very close. I actually think it’s just a matter of semantics. When you say meditating, the way that I would describe that is practicing mindfulness while sitting still. To me that’s the only difference. I just don’t use that word, because often times I’ve noticed that it conjures up weird images in people’s minds if they’re not familiar with the topic. People tend to think of people sitting on a mountaintop in a cave, or something like that. I just don’t mention the word meditate, or meditation because I think, if we’re just talking about mindfulness, which is something most people are familiar with, and it’s a little bit easier for people to grasp, because here is a practical tool that I don’t have to add something weird to my life.

Really, all meditation is, the definition of it is, becoming familiar with the mind. When I say sitting still practicing mindfulness, or what you call meditation, what that is, is taking time to become familiar with the mind. There is tremendous benefit to that. When I say that you don’t have to add anything to your schedule, I’m not saying that you should not take time to sit still. We addressed this in the book. There are ways that we can add sitting still practice, or what you would call meditation to our lives without adding anything to our schedule. We just change the way that we do things that we already do.

For instance, if we take a 10 minute break in the morning, or afternoon which, I know a lot of us who are type A brag about how we don’t take breaks. We definitely should, there’s plenty of research which we bring up in the book showing that we are actually much more productive over the long term if we take breaks frequently. The brain needs to rest to be able to function at optimal levels. The idea here is that, assuming that you do take a break instead of spending the whole time texting, or searching Facebook, or reading a magazine, or something like that, take 5 minutes of it to sit still while you practice mindfulness.

Again, if we commute on a train, that’s a very easy place to practice. One of my favorite places to practice is on a train or subway. The value of taking time to sit still is that, during motion, yes, it’s very likely that there are changes happening to the brain, but most of the research I think is focused on people who had periods of time sitting still every day. The reason I think sitting still has such an effect is that, you’re not going to get the same level of clarity of your inner world when you’re in motion at first. You can train to this point.

I actually find that my practice is almost identical now, for instance, when I’m walking, or when I’m standing and waiting in a line, as it is when I sit still. I think anyone can do that, there’s nothing special about me. At first it’s very helpful to take time to sit still, because it allows us to have this much higher resolution image, or this much greater clarity of our inner world, and our learning curve is much sharper that way.

Peter : I’d love to here about your story, because it’s an interesting story of how you ended up discovering all of this. The Matt Tenney origin story. What brought you here?

Matt : I’ll give you the briefest version possible, and then you can ask any questions that you’d like to follow up on. As much as I’d love to tell you that I learned about this as the result of some great success, running a fantastic company or something, I actually learned about it as a result of my greatest failure. I had served as an officer in the Marine core, and about 2 years into my career did something very stupid and dishonest, attempted a shortcut to success by arranging a fraudulent delivery of government funds. That resulted in me spending 5 ½ years confined to a military prison. About a year into it, started learning about mindfulness, and practice resonated with me so much that I really when at it 100%. Ended up living and training exactly as monks live and train for the last 3 ½ years that I was confined, and then went and lived and trained and a quote unquote real monastery after leaving confinement.

The 2 biggest takeaways for me on that training was that I learned one, that it’s possible to be happy with nothing outside of ourselves, even just inside of a prison with no possessions. In fact, there was a period about a year into my practice where I realized I was actually happier confined then I had ever been in my life. The other aspect was that, although I don’t think I was ever a terrible person, apparently terrible enough to do something stupid and get arrested. What I noticed was that there was a shift to being much more concerned about what I could do to serve others, versus my own short-term self-interest. I’ve noticed that, the more I really focused on that, the more success I’ve had, both personally and professionally.

I’ve found that mindfulness training has greatly facilitated that. This focus on service led me to cofound and lead a couple nonprofits, and then eventually realized, wow, maybe I could help other leaders to, not only make this shift from being more focused on short-term self-interest, or quarterly profits, more towards what we can do to most effectively serve team members, and how that leads to better business outcomes, and here’s how mindfulness can help you do that.

Peter : You’ve had a big experience of adversity – all of your freedoms were taken away. And yet you made something useful of it. I think a lesson here for many of us who periodically get into situations where we are overwhelmed, or we have too much work, or we have a big challenge ahead of us.

We ask for it in many ways – we work hard to put ourselves in those situations in many cases. It’s good to pause in those moments, and think “Maybe I’m challenged by a particular individual, but I kind of like challenges.”

Still, It doesn’t mean I’m happy about it all the time. It’s useful to watch the conversation that’s going on in my mind, without reframing. In other words, to look for the opportunity in the adversity without repressing my frustration with the adversity. I think that’s a danger that people run into: Let’s just go for happy thoughts. I don’t think that’s the point.

Matt : No, I think you just nailed it Peter , you hit that right on the head. The idea is, instead of a normal tendency when we’re not enjoying our internal reaction to something, when we don’t find it pleasant, is we either want to repress it, or many of us continue to fuel it. Somebody has engaged us in a way that insults our ego, tend to have this circle of thoughts saying, “Oh, I’m right just to be angry, and I’m going to do this, and they should have done that, I’m going to get them.” You can just notice this thought, however subtle this thought pattern of wanting to assert ourselves in a way that repeals our ego wound so to speak.

Whereas, the practice of mindfulness is to neither repress, nor to fuel that. You hit it right on the head, it’s just to have this playful, almost like we’re a mad scientist investigating our own reaction, just saying, “Oh, look, here’s my habitual way of, when somebody from a County walked into my office, look at how I immediately just want to shut them out because I hate that stuff.” Just watching it, and that we are thereby no longer confined by it. We start to see that, this is something that’s impermanent, it comes and goes, and the more that we have that insight, the more free we become.

Peter : Excellent, Matt Tenney, thank you so much. The book is The Mindfulness Edge, how to rewire your brain for leadership, and personal excellence without adding to your schedule. It’s a great primer on mindfulness, with a tremendous amount of research that helps us to understand both the importance of mindfuness, the research behind it, and some practical aspects of how to do it. Matt, thank you for sharing your story, and your knowledge with our listeners, and thank you for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.

Matt : Absolutely, my pleasure, thanks again for having me.