On March 1, Odgers Berndtson hosted the first global pre-launch of the highly anticipated book The Mind of the Leader published by Harvard Business Review Press. The event featured co-author and special guest speaker, Jacqueline Carter, North American Director for Potential Project – the global leader in mindful leadership research and training.
Grounded in an extensive two-year research project and the latest neuroscience, The Mind of the Leader describes a radical redefinition of what it takes to be an effective leader today and explores how leaders can develop the necessary mental qualities to help create more people-centered cultures and improved business results. Jacqueline presented the key findings from the research drawn from assessments of more than 35,000 leaders worldwide and interviews with over 250 senior executives. The event was moderated by Eric Beaudan, a Partner at Odgers Berndston, and the Global Head of the firm’s Leadership Practice.
What challenges are leaders facing in the 21st century?
Jacqueline kicked off the presentation with a definition of what she and her colleagues at Potential Project call the Paid Reality – how leaders today are operating in an environment where they feel pressured, always on, information overloaded and distracted. As a result, their research shows that leaders are not meeting employees’ expectations of finding meaning, connection and happiness in their work.
Some of the disturbing stats she shared were as follows:
- 13% of the working world is engaged while 24% are actively disengaged
- 65% of employees would forgo a pay raise to see their leader fired
- 77% of leaders think they are doing a good job while 88% of employees disagree
More specifically, Jacqueline offered three key insights from the research:
The heroic MBA leader is dead
Relying on a single, inspirational, all-seeing and all-knowing leader has become a thing of the past. The business world has become too complex for one person to have all the answers. And on the flip side, low employee engagement scores reveal that this generation is more likely to question the authority of a top-down leader – heroic or otherwise.
Great leadership starts with the mind
It's no longer about how smart leaders are, or how many hours they work, but rather about their ability to understand and manage their own minds. This is a crucial step to being able to understand and manage others. Like leadership pioneer Peter Drucker once said: "You cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first."
There are three key critical qualities that leaders must cultivate
While initially focusing their research on mindfulness as a core leadership quality, Jacqueline and co-author, Rasmus Hougaard’s research also uncovered that ‘selflessness' and ‘compassion' were equally important. And while former schools of thought believed that the human brain was developmentally “stuck” at age 20-25, neuroscience research has proven that the brain can be rewired based on how we use it. This is good news for leaders who wish to train and cultivate these qualities to improve personal and professional effectiveness.
Mindfulness: Training your attention muscle
While having a wandering mind was an evolutionary advantage for our ancestors, it has become an impediment in today's business environment, which is full of distractions. And if, as reported, employees, managers and leaders are distracted on average 47% of the time and not focused or performing to their full potential, there is indeed a business case for improving mindfulness at work.
According to Jacqueline, being mindful is about being present and fully focused on what is taking place at that moment – both in terms of how you’re feeling and what’s going on around you. It’s about being aware, rather than operating on autopilot. When leaders learn to train their minds to manage their attention and enhance their focus on the task at hand, this results in better choices, better interactions and, ultimately, better outcomes.
Selflessness: Getting out of our own way
While egotistical executives have almost become normalized in traditional business paradigms, Jacqueline and Rasmus' research uncovered that too much ego presents several obstacles to effective leadership. Ego can:
- Increase vulnerability to criticism, based on our need to self-protect
- Increase susceptibility to manipulation, based on our desire to look good
- Narrow our field of vision to confirmation bias, making it easy to miss things
- Corrupt our behavior, and cause us to act against our values
The opposite of too much ego is selflessness – the ability to let go of one's natural, egoistic tendencies and focus on others and the bigger picture.
Selfless leadership enhances engagement and brings about a shared sense of belonging, recognition and appreciation amongst teams. Citing more of the research, Jacqueline explained that using collective pronouns like "we" and "our" has been linked to improved health, political success and more effective leadership. This suggests that successful leaders are more oriented towards others and have a better ability to engage with and connect with their employees, teams and other stakeholders.
Compassion: Putting people at the center of the strategy
The third leadership quality that Jacqueline and her colleagues were surprised to uncover as critical to a leader’s success today is compassion – the quality of having positive intentions for others. Compassion traditionally was thought of as a weak and emotional characteristic. But times are changing. The intention to be of benefit to others was ranked highly by the many executives they interviewed. In fact, a whopping 80% said that they’d like to bring more compassion into their daily leadership, but don’t know how.
Jacqueline offered three strategies that leaders can apply in practicing compassion:
- always check your intention
- ask yourself “how can I be of benefit to others?”
- engage in regular random acts of kindness.
Of course, when the number one objective of many organizations is shareholder wealth, it can be challenging to find a place for compassion. But the research is clear, when leaders actively look for ways they can benefit others they create stronger interpersonal connections, enhanced commitment and lower turnover among their people.
Jacqueline concluded by underscoring the fact that leadership is only going to get tougher which is why we all need better strategies to manage our minds, our teams and our organizations. She left us all with a thought-provoking quote from Javier Pladevall, General Manager at Audi & Volkswagen in Spain: “Leadership is now about unlearning management, and about relearning being human”.
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