Mindful Leadership in a Muslim Nation

February 2, 2018

SIYLI’s Peter Bonanno taught SIY as part of the Mohammad bin Rashid Center for Leadership Development's Impactful Leaders program, which is training the next generation of leaders from the United Arab Emirates. Peter reflects on his experience and how the seeds of mindfulness and compassion training will be part of the program’s legacy, and its impact on future generations of Emiratis.

The word “change” is everywhere in the United Arab Emirates. With oil prices dropping over the last several years, many oil-based economies around the world are struggling to adapt. Success or failure to adapt is, of course, not only an economic issue, but also affects the livelihoods and well-being of millions of people.
 
The UAE’s leadership speaks about not only adapting, but innovating: becoming a model for a new kind of economy, transitioning to renewable energy and developing smart urban planning to sustainably manage a desert mega-city. The Emiratis I met admire the country's leadership and forward-thinking initiatives, such as a newly founded Ministry of Happiness as way to emphasize human well-being alongside economic growth and the Mohammad bin Rashid Center for Leadership Development (MBRCLD), which promotes efforts to use technology to better deliver government services.
 
It’s against this context that MBRCLD initiated a yearlong leadership development program—putting their hopes in this next generation of leaders to rise to the challenges of not only adapting, but thriving. To train these leaders, they're bringing in the best leaders and learning experiences from around the world: two top consulting firms, Boston Consulting Group and Korn Ferry, will run leadership development curricula; three of the world's top universities are here to provide executive education modules; participants will travel to China, Silicon Valley and London to understand trends in technology and society.
 
And when MBRCLD asked, "What are the skills our leaders need for the future?" one of the answers they came to was “mindfulness.” Hence, mindfulness and emotional intelligence training with Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is the first module to be woven throughout the program––participants will start every day of every in-person session with a SIYLI-taught mindfulness exercise.
 
I was appreciating how, in the midst of challenges and bad news, we as beings continue to evolve and grow. As Bob Dylan sang, "For the times they are a-changin'…." Globally, more leaders seem to appreciate that leadership is strengthened by a deep capacity for reflection, self-awareness and truly seeing the other people around us with empathy. Still, I found my mind worrying about whether SIY would go over well in the UAE.
 
What if SIY was in some way dissonant with Muslim practices, faith or Emirati culture? I was humbled by how little I really knew about the lives and challenges of our audience. I believe that the mindfulness and emotional intelligence practices SIY teaches can benefit anyone, yet I wondered if the membrane of culture, religion and language might prove impermeable in the mere two days we’d have together.
 
My co-teacher Mounira Latrache and I talked about this in our pre-program planning. We both observed how even seeing the traditional clothing worn by participants, the Kandoorah and Abaya, gave rise to a feeling of fear and insecurity that we might not be able to find common ground. The cross-cultural experience was even more salient for Mounira. She is of Tunisian descent and was raised in Germany, where she always had the feeling she was “an Arabic woman who was different from the traditions of her home country.”

We took stock of everything this program brought up in us: vague fears, biases and feelings about our own identities. The pause to check in created some mental space. What was really important to us here? The answers that came to us were similar: to connect with these participants as fully as we could and to listen for how we could be of service.
 
When the SIY program started, the ice broke quickly. Mindful listening, some focused attention training and a three-breath re-centering practice and we could already see eyes lighting up. The leaders shared how mindfulness would help them create space to ask what’s most important. A man chuckled bashfully when he shared that SIY made him realize he needs to practice mindful listening with his wife. The group laughed as one participant said he needs to take three breaths next time he gets cut off in traffic. I was touched by the leaders sharing their intentions to create compassionate workplaces and a thriving society.
 
As the program went on and everyone warmed up to each other, participants also got more excited to share how the program’s content connected to their Muslim practice and tradition, as well as the philosophy of the country's revered founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who emphasized maintaining a positive vision for the future. In fact, the experience had the feel of children on a playground who, discovering that they get along and might be friends, are suddenly excited to share their favorite toys and stories.
 
Here are a few of the discussions that stuck with me:
 
Mindfulness and Prayer
I was curious how this audience would see the connection between prayer and mindfulness. I wondered if the insight to "stop during your day to reconnect with yourself and your highest intentions" would seem less than innovative to a culture that already does this five times daily. And, indeed, at the first coffee break, one participant said, "This is all very interesting, Mr. Peter…but I think we already practice mindfulness five times per day!"
 
As the program continued, people shared comments about the complementarity they felt. A few said they sometimes "pray on autopilot," just going through the motions without considering the deep meaning it can have. After day one of the program, one leader said she tried to be fully present while praying the next morning and found the experience to be more meaningful. Another participant said he wanted to take a mindful "minute to arrive" before prayer so that he could fully transition into the experience, rather than rushing or worrying.
 
At the end of the program, one of the leaders admitted that he initially thought "this paying attention to your breath stuff" was all “stupid nonsense.” But by the end of the program, he said he had never felt such peace of mind before.
 
"These Practices Will Help Me Be a Better Muslim"
This quote from one of the MBRCLD leaders caught my attention, and a few participants shared similar sentiments. For example, one man said that he recognized that much of our program content resonated with ethical practices he had learned in scripture. He told me there's mention in the Koran that offering a kind attitude or a smile to others is a form of charity, like giving food. He said that he felt the practices taught in SIY, such as the Just Like Me and Loving Kindness practices, felt like a practical way to prepare his mind that to offer kindness and understanding.
 
Just Like Me
Finally, there's one touching moment I want to share: Mounira led the Just Like Me and Offering Kindness meditation, a practice that supports development of empathy and compassion. As part of the practice, we invite participants to cultivate a sense of inner kindness, and imagine goodwill and wishes of kindness to others.
 
When we asked the group about how the practice went for them, one man in the front of the room shared this story: He said that that when prompted to extend good wishes out to the world, he had a vision of peace being made in Israel between Jews and Muslims. He had an image of a marriage between a Jew and a Muslim, each with their own culture yet able to live in peace.

It was one of those moments where I felt his eyes lingering on us teachers longer than usual––he had experienced something profound and was working to make sense of it. I asked him, "How did you feel having this vision?" And right away, he said, "Like it's possible."