The MSC Leader

The Mind of the Leader captures the essence of truly human leadership in the digital age—people deeply engaging people on what matters most in the moment. Imagine how transformative you will be when you deliberately give your full focus, attention, and energy to your passions.”

— NATHAN BOAZ, Senior Managing Director, Talent Strategy and Leadership Development, Accenture

The Mind of the Leader provides simple yet powerful strategies to help us be more focused, calm, and clear-minded in the face of today’s business realities. It is an essential read for any leader who wants to enhance engagement and performance at the same time.”

— HELENA GOTTSCHLING, Chief Human Resources Officer, Royal Bank of Canada

“If you aspire to be a more effective leader, you really should read this book. Do the book’s exercises too. You’ll learn how to be more mindful, selfless, and compassionate. Not only will you improve as a leader, you’ll be become happier, kinder, and more fulfilled.”

— MARK R. TERCEK, President and CEO, the Nature Conservancy, and author of Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature

The Mind of the Leader provides clear guidance on becoming a mindful leader, but also takes it a step further and introduces the practices of self lessness and compassion for leaders. In this way, the book describes the leadership of the future and how leaders enable true engagement, following, and passion.”

— SCOTT SHUTE, VP of Global Customer Operations and Head of Mindfulness Programs, LinkedIn

The Mind of the Leader provides a great roadmap for any leader to create real engagement and a sense of purpose for the people they lead. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a people-centric leader who shows up present, selfless, and with care for self and others. In a very disrupting world, it also lays out how to create great organizational cultures with strong trust and social cohesion.”


“In this beautifully constructed and deeply relatable book, Hougaard and Carter remind us of a deep and profound truth to unlock performance in organizations: the power of a leader’s ability to bring presence and fulfill our most basic human needs for connection, meaning, and purpose in an increasingly busy and disconnected world.”

— PATRICIA WALLACE, Director, Leadership, Talent & Organization Development, Disney University

“I was first exposed to methods of training the mind in a community setting and immediately saw benefits for me personally. Hougaard and Carter helped me and my organization see how these ancient mind-training tools were equally relevant in day-to-day work. In The Mind of the Leader, they have gone one step further and provide strategic guidance on how we as leaders can better lead ourselves, our people, and our organizations.”

— ASHWANI DAHIYA, Regional Vice President, Wells Fargo

The Mind of the Leader is a deep well of knowledge and insights about the essence of modern leadership. Leaders need to understand that employees do not want to be viewed as head count but want to be seen and treated as whole people. In this context, the qualities of mindfulness, self lessness, and compassion are essential traits in leadership.”

— PÄR STENMARK, Chief Regulatory Affairs Officer, IKEA Range & Supply

“In this groundbreaking book, Hougaard and Carter turn traditional assumptions about leadership on their head and offer a fresh, inspiring, and deeply human vision for leadership— a vision that this world dearly needs.”

— ANDY LEE, Chief Mindfulness Officer, Aetna

The Mind of the Leader challenges us to redefine our view of what makes a good leader. Drawing on their extensive experience in bringing mindfulness to organizations, Hougaard and Carter have skillfully laid out a well-structured leadership journey that starts with understanding our mind and training it to be more focused, service-oriented, and compassionate so we can help ourselves and our organizations realize more of their potential. If you want to apply mindfulness to yourself and/or your organization this is a must (and fun) read.”

— PETER BOSTELMANN, Director, SAP Global Mindfulness Practice

“In The Mind of the Leader, Hougaard and Carter draw from their extensive personal and professional experience to offer practical guidance to bring about positive transformation in the lives of leaders,their professional colleagues, and the workplace. Proper leadership can play an enormous role in alleviating suffering, enriching humanity, and preserving the environment for generations to come.”

— B. ALAN WALLACE, President, Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies

“Bringing greater mindfulness and empathetic understanding should really be at the heart of leadership at all levels. This book offers tested methods for how to do this. Anyone who is keen to develop a new way of leading, rooted in greater self-awareness, focus, and compassion, will benefit greatly from this remarkable book.”

— THUPTEN JINPA, PhD, founder of Compassion Institute, and author of A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives

The Mind of the Leader navigates the reader through much of what science has taught us about how our minds work, the dangers of being overly ego and threat-focused, and how to cultivate minds for creating happiness, meaning, and courage and to live by our principles. Anyone who follows the insights and practices of this outstanding book will give themselves, their colleagues, employees, organizations, and even the world around them ways to live and lead intelligently, effectively, ethically, creatively, and compassionately.”

— PAUL GILBERT, PhD, author of The Compassionate Mind and Overcoming Depression

“The art of managing people starts with managing oneself. In The Mind of the Leader, Hougaard and Carter provides a clear roadmap for both. When leaders are good human beings, doing good for their people, their organizations will thrive.”

— ALBERTO RIBERA, Senior Lecturer of Managing People in Organizations, IESE Business School

“We all know that leaders must continue to learn throughout their career. To do so, they must understand the way they currently function and the impact they have on others. The Mind of the Leadercompellingly shows how improving organizations starts with improving self, which starts with understanding self.”

— JEAN-FRANÇOIS MANZONI, President and Nestlé Professor, IMD Business School

The Mind of the Leader teaches us how to be a human before being a leader, and to show up authentically, with an intention of benefiting the people we lead and our clients. I have seen, time and again, that these principles are foundational for great leadership.”

— JACQUELINE GILLESPIE, Managing Director Leadership & Talent Consulting, Korn Ferry International

The Mind of the Leader is a roadmap for leaders to navigate the complex disciplines of leading self, people, and organizations. Hougaard and Carter clearly show how being a human before being a leader is foundational for creating people-centered organizations with strong engagement and productivity.”

— ÉDOUARD-MALO HENRY, CHCO, Société Générale Bank

The Mind of the Leader serves as a blueprint for how leaders can better foster employees’ professional growth, inspiring them to do the best work of their lives.”

— ERIC MOSLEY, founder and CEO, Globoforce

The Mind of the Leader provides tools for leaders to put people first. It provides a logical journey, starting with understanding the mind and then cultivating qualities to enhance presence, engagement, collaboration, and performance.”

— GISELA A. PAULSEN, Global Head, Product Development and Global Product Strategy Finance, Genentech

The Mind of the Leader lays out the management paradigm for the coming years. In the same way that our customers’ behavior is changing, our employees’ values and expectations are also changing. Traditional hierarchical, top-down leadership will not work anymore. To engage top performers, employees, and teams, we need to provide them with an environment that allows more self-management, generates more personal fulfillment, and shares a meaningful purpose. This book helps you develop into the leader whom successful organizations are already requiring.

— DAVID CAMPOS, CHRO Volkswagen Group Retail Spain

“At BMS France, we have successfully introduced the personnel practice of mindfulness. This has already deeply benefited our organization. The Mind of the Leader will take us further by equipping us with the tools and the compass to become the mindful leaders we aspire to be.”

— JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BARLAND, Managing Director, BMS France, and President, UPSA Worldwide

“As individuals and as leaders, we are challenged to maintain our own well-being and clarity of mind so that we can also enable others to flourish. In this book, we find theories and practical advice that are enormously insightful in enabling us to look inside to support and lead ourselves effectively, so that we can then be most of service to our colleagues and the organizations we lead.”

— MARIA FARROW, HRO, LVMH Perfumes and Cosmetics

“In this wonderful book, Hougaard and Carter describe how they have created a system, tested and refined on thousands of leaders, that teaches self-management. They show how this improves leadership effectiveness and organizations’ performance. It is a must for anyone who wants to be a better leader.”

— PAUL J. ZAK, PhD, author of Trust Factor: The Science of High-Performance Companies

The Mind of the Leader humanizes the workplace again, reminding us of the all-important intrinsic motivation of people and charting a clear road for leaders to step up and do better, be better.”

— PHIL COX, Head of EMEA and President of UK, Silicon Valley Bank

“In The Mind of the Leader, Hougaard and Carter outline the type of leadership and culture that creates a great employee experience and thereby greater productivity. I recommend it to anyone with the great privilege of leading others.”

— BRECKON JONES, speaker, adviser, former Director, Total Reward, Australia and New Zealand, American Express, and Director, Employee Engagement, Unilever

The Mind of the Leader is for all leaders—past, present, and future—who now need to have the courage to adopt MSC leadership. An inspirational read that reinforces the great traits I have long believed deliver world-class teams and sustainable business success. This superbly researched book will inspire our next generation of MSC leaders.”

— TRACEY L. REDDINGS, Head of UK & Ireland, Julius Baer International Ltd.

“In The Mind of a Leader, Hougaard and Carter describe the kind of leadership that helps companies, societies, and civilization advance and describes how organizations can train and develop effective leaders. The book is thoroughly researched and theoretically grounded, but never dry or daunting. The result is a compelling, accessible, and practical roadmap for developing a leadership style that motivates people and enhances organizational performance.”

— FRANCESC XAVIER COLL ESCURSEL, Chief Human Resources and Organisation Officer, CaixaBank

“Hougaard and Carter have completed a diagnosis of the ‘dis-ease’ that faces leaders today and have created a comprehensive, easy to follow, treatment plan. As a physician, I value the fact that the book is heavily data driven, backed by science, and yet written in a way that is accessible and immediately applicable. The Mind of the Leader provides invaluable tools and resources that enable leaders to bring more of their best selves to work and work to create a more mindful and compassionate organizational culture.”

— RACHEL ROBERTS, MD, Medical Director, UHA Stanford Health Care

The Mind of the Leader brings leadership back to being about humans. We all want to be happy, lead a meaningful life, grow in our thought processes, and remain connected with other people. This book is a blueprint for creating truly human leadership that enables engagement, flourishing, and productivity.”

— RITU ANAND, Senior Vice President, HR, Tata Consultancy Services



1. The MSC Leader


Understand and Lead Yourself

2. Understand Yourself

3. Mindfully Lead Yourself

4. Selfless Self-Leadership

5. Lead Yourself with Compassion


Understand and Lead Your People

6. Understand Your People

7. Mindful Leadership

8. Selfless Leadership

9. Compassionate Leadership


Understand and Lead Your Organization

10. Understand Your Organization

11. Lead for a Mindful Organization

12. Lead for a Selfless Organization

13. Lead for a Compassionate Organization

About the Authors


During the summer of 2015, Pierre Nanterme, Accenture’s CEO, announced that the global professional services company would reimagine its performance management system. The company found that after decades of serving its purpose, the system had become massively demotivating. Accenture’s global workforce had changed. Their people—and your people—are not motivated by being a number on a performance rating scale. Rather, today’s workforce is increasingly looking for meaning, human connectedness, true happiness, and a desire to contribute positively to the world. Nanterme and his leadership team realized Accenture needed a better way to lead for these foundational human desires and better engage their 425,000-plus employees—to speak to their intrinsic motivation.

Accenture is no outlier. A global movement is taking place in the C-suites of thousands of progressive organizations like Marriott, Starbucks, and LinkedIn. The question the leaders of these organizations ask themselves is, “How can we create more human leadership and people-centered cultures where employees and leaders are more fulfilled and more fully engaged?”

As human beings, we are all driven by basic needs for meaning, happiness, human connectedness, and a desire to contribute positively to society. That’s true whether we’re at home, out in the world, or at work. But it’s one thing to realize this and another to act on it. Speaking to our people’s intrinsic motivation calls for leadership and organizations that cater to these desires. It’s something that forward-thinking organizations and leaders are increasingly realizing and addressing. As Javier Pladevall, CEO of Audi Volkswagen, Spain, reflected when we spoke with him, “Leadership today is about unlearning management and relearning being human.”

The Mind of the Leader provides a way to do this. It outlines how leaders can lead themselves, their people, and their organizations to unlock intrinsic motivation, create real people-centered cultures, and ultimately deliver extraordinary results.

How important is the message of this book? Consider this: In a 2016 McKinsey & Company study of more than fifty-two thousand managers, 86 percent rated themselves as inspiring and good role models. But this stands in stark contrast to how employees perceive their leaders. A 2016 Gallup engagement survey found that 82 percent of employees see their leaders as fundamentally uninspiring. In fact, the same survey found that only 13 percent of the global workforce is engaged, while 24 percent are actively disengaged.

This seeming lack of good leadership is not because of a lack of effort. According to a recent report, organizations around the globe invest approximately $46 billion annually on leadership development programs. That’s a lot of money for seemingly little return. What’s going wrong?

In part, the system is broken. According to research by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, when many leaders start to feel powerful, their more benevolent qualities start to decline. Leaders are three times more likely than lower-level employees to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things. He also found that leaders are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behavior. None of this is going to speak to the intrinsic motivation we all share.

While the $46 billion spent on leadership training might improve leaders’ effectiveness—at least in a strictly business sense of focusing on the bottom line—something more is needed: leadership that truly engages employees, is truly human, and addresses basic human needs any employee has.

And it starts in the mind of the leader.

Leadership pioneer Peter Drucker said, “You cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first.” If this is true, the majority of leadership education and training programs have it backward. Most leadership education starts with skills like strategy, people management, and finance. But from Drucker’s point of view, this approach starts at the end and misses the beginning. It’s like building a house by starting with the roof.

Like Drucker, we argue that leadership starts with yourself. More specifically, it starts in your mind. By understanding how your mind works, you can lead yourself effectively. By understanding and leading yourself effectively, you can understand others and be able to lead them more effectively. And by understanding and leading others more effectively, you can understand and lead your organization more effectively—and by “more effectively,” we mean in a way that’s going to tap into your own and your people’s intrinsic motivations and sense of purpose. If you’re able to do that—and we have witnessed that with practice and persistence, anyone can—you’ll have a more engaged and productive workforce. And perhaps more importantly, you’ll be part of creating more happiness, stronger human connectedness, and better social cohesion within and beyond your organization.

For over a decade, we and our colleagues at Potential Project have trained tens of thousands of leaders in hundreds of companies like Microsoft, the LEGO Group, Danone, and Accenture, utilizing the practice of mindfulness. The outcomes have been thoroughly researched and proven to deliver remarkable results. But with the emerging movement of employees looking for more meaning, happiness, and connectedness, we have asked ourselves what else leaders need for leading themselves, their people, and their organizations for extraordinary results.

As part of this research, we and our research team surveyed and assessed more than thirty thousand leaders from thousands of companies in more than a hundred countries. We have conducted in-depth interviews with hundreds of C-suite executives. And we have reviewed thousands of studies on leadership in the fields of neuroscience, leadership, organizational development, and psychology.

Based on this research, we have conclusively found that three mental qualities stand out as being foundational for leaders today: mindfulness (M), selflessness (S), and compassion (C). Together, we call these foundational skills MSC leadership.

So how do you as a leader achieve MSC leadership, to better engage your people at their intrinsic level and unleash better performance? By applying mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion first to yourself, then to your people, and then to your organization The Mind of the Leader takes you step by step through this process.

Since MSC leadership begins inwardly, with your own mind, and then projects outward to your people and your organization, the book is structured to take you on that journey. By understanding yourself—your mind—you can lead yourself effectively. By leading yourself, you’ll be able to lead others effectively. And by leading others, you can better lead your organization. This is the overarching structure of the book, as presented in figure I-1Part 1 is about understanding and leading yourself. Part 2 is about understanding and leading your people. And part 3 is about understanding and leading your organization.


The three levels of leadership

Each part starts with an “understanding” chapter, helping you understand your own mind, your people’s minds, and the collective “organizational culture mind.” After that, each part moves into more practical chapters on developing and applying each of the three MSC leadership components—mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion—to your leadership.

We bring this book to you with confidence. In its development, we have been standing on the shoulders of giants: the mind-training masters who have inspired us for decades, the executives who offered their wisdom and the researchers who shared their findings. You are now welcomed into this journey, but you are not alone. Thousands of people have gone through its practices before you and have transformed themselves and the way they lead. You are about to enter a movement, and we are here to support you on your way.


The MSC Leader

Traditionally, workplace initiatives designed to increase engagement and productivity are focused on external satisfaction—things like bonuses, raises, funky office environments, free food, flex time, and the like. All of these can be great, but they’re short-term solutions. They work for a little while, but the effects wear off as people begin to take the money, titles, foosball tables, and free energy bars for granted. External initiatives and perks never truly motivate people for the long term. Instead, only internal drivers—such as meaningful engagement, connectedness, and feeling valued—can engage employees on the deeper level needed for long-term commitment and productivity.

When we spoke with Steven Worrall, managing director of Microsoft Australia, he put it this way: “In the 1990s, we talked about work–life balance. But with today’s 24/7 work reality, we’re past that. Today, we talk about engagement and satisfaction. But in the near future, it will be about creating a real sense of purpose and meaning. Successful leaders in the future will be the ones who can facilitate true happiness for their people.”

If we as leaders want to cultivate truly thriving organizations, we need to understand what really matters to human beings. We all want to be happy. We all want to live meaningful lives and contribute to the well-being of others. This truth also applies to work. People leaving the office every day with a sense of fulfillment will want to come back, focus on tough projects, and work hard. Because of meaningful intrinsic motivation, they will want to continue doing their best day after day, year after year.

So how do you facilitate meaning, connectedness, and true happiness for the people you lead? Or, more specifically, what qualities of mind does a leader need to develop to be better at leading this changing workforce? Based on extensive research—including surveys and assessments of tens of thousands of leaders—we at Potential Project have found that three mental qualities stand out as being critical for increasing engagement, happiness, and productivity: mindfulness (M), selflessness (S), and compassion (C). They are foundational qualities of great leadership that we call MSC leadershipFigure 1-1 visually summarizes these three qualities.


MSC leadership

All three characteristics are closely linked. In fact, they are mutually enhancing. Mindfulness makes us more selfless, and selflessness makes us more compassionate. More compassion in turn, makes us more mindful and selfless. While it’s true that some leaders have innately developed these characteristics, our experience shows that all three can be learned, practiced, and enhanced.

In the following sections, we’ll examine each characteristic in greater detail.

The Anatomy of Mindfulness (M)

Mindfulness refers to both a practice and a state of mind. The more you practice it, the more it becomes your state of mind. Mindfulness is about generating greater mental effectiveness, so that you can realize more of your potential on both a professional and a personal level. Effectiveness in this context is the ability to achieve your goals, objectives, and wishes in life.

Mindfulness training tools and techniques have been around for thousands of years. In our work with organizations around the world, we keep the practice and definition of mindfulness simple and close to its ancient roots: paying attention, in the present moment, with a calm, focused, and clear mind.

At the center of the practice of mindfulness is learning to manage your attention. When you learn how to manage your attention, you learn how to manage your thoughts. You learn to hold your focus on what you choose, whether it’s this page, an email, a meeting, or the people you are with. In other words, you train yourself to be more present in the here and now.

Recently, research has backed up the claims that mindfulness practitioners have been making for years. Mindfulness has a positive impact on our physiology, psychology, and work performance. At the physiological level, researchers have demonstrated that mindfulness training results in a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, and a lower heart rate. In addition, people who practice mindfulness sleep better and feel less stressed.

Mindfulness training increases the density of grey cells in our cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that thinks rationally and solves problems. Because of this increase, cognitive function improves, resulting in better memory, increased concentration, reduced cognitive rigidity, and faster reaction times. With all these benefits, research has found people who practice mindfulness techniques report an overall increased quality of life.

The benefits of mindfulness have also been demonstrated in an organizational context. For example, Jochen Reb, a researcher from Singapore Management University evaluated the effectiveness of some of our mindful leadership programs at Carlsberg Group and If Insurance, a large Scandinavian insurance company. He found significant improvements in focus, awareness, memory, job performance, and overall job satisfaction after only nine weeks of training for ten minutes each day. Attendees also reported reduced stress and improved perceptions of work–life balance. Other researchers have found similar benefits from mindfulness training in corporate contexts, including increased creativity and innovation, improved employer–employee relations, reduced absenteeism, and improved ethical decision making.

But mindfulness does something far more powerful than all of the above—it constructively alters our perception of reality. Through repeated practice, mindfulness triggers a shift in cognitive control to frontal brain regions (figure 1-2). This enables us to perceive our world, our emotions, and other people without fight-or-flight, knee-jerk reactions and have better emotional resilience.


Prefrontal takeover

This change in neurological wiring helps us perceive situations and make decisions more from our conscious mind, avoiding some of the traps of our unconscious biases. Operating more from our prefrontal cortex also enhances our executive function, the control center for our thoughts, words, and actions. A well-developed executive function allows us to better lead ourselves and others toward shared goals. With stronger prefrontal activity, we deactivate our tendency to be distracted and we become more present, focused, and attentive. Not coincidentally, mindfulness also makes us happier. The more present and attentive we are, regardless of what we do, the happier we become.

There are two key qualities of mindfulness—focus and awareness. Focus is the ability to concentrate on a task at hand for an extended period of time with ease. Awareness is the ability to make wise choices about where to focus your attention. Optimal effectiveness is achieved when you’re simultaneously focused and aware.

Focus and awareness are complementary. Focus enables more stable awareness, and awareness enables focus to return to what we’re doing. They work in tandem. The more focused we become, the more we will also be aware—and the other way around. In mindfulness practice, you enhance focus and awareness together.

Mindfulness can be presented in a two-by-two matrix, as shown in figure 1-3.


The mindfulness matrix

In the lower left quadrant, you’re neither focused nor aware. There is really not much good to say about this state of mind. Most of the mistakes we make arise from this mind state. And in leadership, as elsewhere, this can be harmful. If we are distracted and on autopilot, we are not present with our people. We can’t expect team members to be engaged and feel supported if we ourselves are not fully present.

In the lower right quadrant, you’re aware but easily distracted. Great ideas may arise from this state. But if your mind is too distracted, you’ll have difficulty retaining them and turning them into actions. Good ideas only become innovative solutions when you have the focus to retain and execute them by bringing them into the upper right quadrant.

Looking at the upper left quadrant, when you’re focused but on autopilot, your state of mind can be described as being in “flow.” It can be useful for routine tasks or when exercising. But the problem with this state is that we are not very aware and therefore are at risk of missing out on valuable information. Without awareness, we may not notice the expressions of the people we are meeting with, and hence we may exercise poor judgment. Also, without awareness, we are not able to see or understand our unconscious biases and may make bad decisions.

In the upper right quadrant—“mindful”—we are focused and aware. We are focused on the people we are with and the tasks we do. And at the same time, we have awareness and the ability to see our unconscious bias and regulate accordingly. In today’s always-on and distracted office environments, these two key qualities help us be mentally agile and effective.

In mindfulness practice, we train both our focus and our awareness. When we’re mindful, we’re able to overcome our minds natural tendency to wander. We can maintain focus on an object of our choice, notice when we get distracted, and then make decisions about where to place our attention. When we’re mindful, we also have a greater awareness of what we’re experiencing internally and externally. We can observe our thoughts as they arise and make best judgments what to focus on and what to let go.

Over the years, we, along with our colleagues, have been teaching and training mindfulness to leaders and employees in hundreds of organizations all over the world. Our approach has been developed and refined in collaboration with researchers, mindfulness experts, and business leaders. This practice is fundamental to your success in mastering mindful leadership. In chapter 3, you’ll find clear instructions for getting started with a daily mindfulness practice. 

Once you begin applying mindfulness to your leadership, you’ll see that as your mindfulness increases, your perception of “self” starts to change. More specifically, a stronger sense of selfless confidence arises, helping you develop the second quality of MSC leadership.

The Anatomy of Selflessness (S)

Selflessness is the wisdom of getting out of your own way, the way of your people, and the way of your organization to unleash the natural flow of energy that people bring to work. Selflessness combines strong self-confidence with a humble intention to be of service. With selflessness, trust increases because we have no secret agendas and followership strengthens because our selflessness sets free our people to be their best selves. Selflessness in leadership manifests itself as humility and service.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins showed that humility combined with strong will is a key trait of successful leaders. Humility, his research found, is when leaders are able to keep their egos in check and always put the organization’s goals before their own. Humility is a trait of selflessness where we’re not attached to an inflated, important sense of self: we have a very real view on how little we actually matter. In the bigger scheme of things, even the best CEO is only one out of hundreds or thousands of individuals contributing to a company’s success. In addition, the company’s success is heavily determined by market trends and large-scale global forces. Any company is merely the result of an interconnected, global field of events, actions, and intentions. There’s no one person who can create this singlehandedly—not even the greatest leader. Understanding this awakens a healthy sense of humility.

Humility allows leaders to understand the value of providing service—a legacy, if you will—to the organization. That is what creates a healthy culture and what creates an organization that can continue from generation to generation. Arne Sorenson, CEO of the hotel chain Marriott, described his role as being a function of service to the company’s 400,000 employees. The driving business philosophy of Marriott is to take care of their employees, so that their employees take care of their guests. That way, business takes care of itself. Arne’s role is not one of power but one of service.

But what about the ego? What’s the role of the ego in selfless leadership? It’s small. We all have an ego that longs for attention and recognition. But great leaders are the ones who’ve tamed their ego so that it doesn’t hinder the larger interests of the people and the company they lead.

Indeed, corporate history is full of great examples of the danger of self-centeredness. Consider Nokia’s fall from industry leadership in cell phones. Nokia was the global market leader in cell phones when Apple introduced the iPhone, a much more sophisticated, yet simple and compelling product. However, the then-CEO of Nokia announced to his entire organization that the iPhone would never be anything but a niche product, and that Nokia would keep producing the phones with which they had gained their success. A few years later, Nokia had fallen into market insignificance, and Apple was the leader.

It wasn’t because Nokia engineers and developers didn’t have good ideas or recognize the shifts in consumer demands. The problem came down to leadership and, specifically, the former CEO’s emotional and ego attachment to what had made him and the company successful. He and his leadership team had fallen in love with Nokia’s past success and created a self-image of success based on that. Because they were not able to let go of this image, they lost major market share almost overnight.

Many of the leaders we’ve talked to worry that selflessness will make them pushovers. But it’s not that simple. A leader’s selflessness has to be combined with self-confidence. If you have selflessness without self-confidence, you will indeed be a pushover. Therefore, selflessness cannot stand on its own. It must be paired with self-confidence. Figure 1-4 illustrates this relationship.


The selflessness matrix

In the lower left quadrant, you lack self-confidence, yet you’re very concerned about your own interests. There are strong narcissist traits in this quadrant. It’s all about you. Few people in this space become a leader of anything but their own desires. There are exceptions, but these individuals tend to generate poor results and, as a result, don’t last long in their leadership roles.

In the lower right quadrant, you have a strong sense of self-confidence, but you’re driven by selfish goals and desires. The strength of your self-confidence is used to achieve personal gains. Leaders in this quadrant would be considered egotistical, with the needs of others rarely recognized or acknowledged. Think of a determined, forceful sales leader, pushing people to sell more and more to make themselves look good. This approach can have some benefits: a strong self-confidence combined with selfishness can create a powerful drive for achieving big results. But this type of approach generally works only in the short term.

This trait can be quite destructive, both personally and for the organizations these leaders lead. As people become leaders, there is a risk of their ethics eroding due to the influence of power. Power can corrupt us and make us more selfish. Also, the desire for fatter paychecks and bigger bonuses can be like drinking salt water—gulping it just makes us thirstier. As many news stories attest, too often leaders at the very top let greed get the better of their ethical judgments, serving their own interests at the expense of others.

In the upper left quadrant, you’re a pushover. You’re not looking out for your own well-being and interest. You have high risk of burning out or being taken advantage of. Not an ideal place to be.

In the upper right quadrant, you have the powerful combination of selflessness and self-confidence. This is the sweet spot. You’re not worried about being taken advantage of, because you have the confidence to speak up for yourself if needed. At the same time, you’re not driven by your own interests. You have a strong focus on the well-being of your people and your organization. In this quadrant, you’re an enabler. Your focus is to enable others to perform and shine. You lead for the long run. You don’t worry about receiving praise—you have self-confidence—so you pass along the credit for achievements to others. It’s not about you. Therefore, you provide inspiration and cultivate a sense of inclusion. In this quadrant, you offer service rather than expect others to be of service to you. Your mission is to contribute to the greater good.

As we let go of our sense of self-importance, we naturally begin attending more to other people: we show more interest in them and offer more care. In this way, compassion arises as a natural outgrowth of selflessness.

The Anatomy of Compassion (C)

Compassion is the quality of having positive intentions for others. It’s the intention of being of service to other people’s happiness and the desire to help alleviate their problems. It’s the ability to understand others’ perspectives and use that as a catalyst for supportive action.

Compassion is different from empathy. Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, describes empathy as being when you take on the suffering of others and you both lose. With compassion, you are empowered to skillful action. The difference between compassion and empathy becomes clear through the following example. Imagine that you meet one of your colleagues at the office. He looks stressed and under tremendous pressure, on the edge of panic. If you reacted with empathy, you would feel sad for him, sit down with him and feel the stress and pressure together with him. In contrast, the compassionate response would be to put yourself in his shoes for a moment, notice his pain, and then see if you can help him address the challenges he is facing.

Empathy and compassion are also different from a neurological perspective. Compassion allows us to be rational, see the bigger picture, and make better decisions for other people—all for the greater good, as opposed to empathy, which narrows our field of vision to single individuals or causes.

Compassion is often mistaken for softness, but nothing could be less true. Compassion is not about giving in to other people. Compassion requires courage and strength to sometimes have difficult conversations or make tough decisions. Let’s clarify a few misconceptions about compassion.

First, compassion is not soft, warm, or fuzzy. It’s hard. Compassion means giving an employee tough but appropriate feedback. Compassion means making difficult decisions for the good of the organization, even when it negatively impacts individuals.

Second, compassion is an intention that does not necessarily change your actions but changes the way you conduct your actions. For example, there is a big difference between giving feedback out of compassion as opposed to giving it out of frustration.

Chris Schmidt, CEO of the US accounting firm Moss Adams, finds compassion to be the most powerful quality to have when laying off people. “I think being compassionate is part of maturing as a leader,” Chris explained. “I always look for the best in people. But when you have to lay off a person, that’s always difficult. I give them many, many opportunities to demonstrate their value. And then, if and when the time comes, I balance the human side with the factual, business-case side. I make it clear that I do feel for that individual, but I keep it within the context of the business decision.” This balanced approach helps him and the other person maintain mutual respect and move on in the best possible way.

Compassion, in more traditional business paradigms, makes you seem weak and emotional. But times are changing. Of the more than a thousand leaders we surveyed, nearly 92 percent stated that compassion is “important” or “extremely important” for effective leadership. Similarly, 80 percent of surveyed leaders stated that it would be “valuable” or “extremely valuable” to enhance their compassion—but that they didn’t know how.

Shimul Melwani, a professor of organizational behavior and leading researcher on the topic, from the University of North Carolina Business School, has found that compassionate leaders are perceived as better and stronger leaders. In addition, compassion fosters true following, trust, and engagement. When you have compassion, the people you lead will better trust in your actions and judgments, because they know you have positive intentions.

Organizations with more compassionate cultures and leaders have stronger connections among people, better collaboration, more trust, enhanced commitment, and lower turnover. Also, compassion in organizations makes people feel more valued, feel an increased sense of dignity, and have greater pride in the collective culture. This all leads to more positive emotions, less anxiety, and quicker recovery from illness. Finally, compassionate company cultures make people act more for the common good within the organization—and beyond corporate walls.

The trick is, of course, to determine how to appropriately harness compassion in a way that best serves you, your people, and your organization. Jeff Weiner, who has made compassion his core leadership principle, paraphrases Fred Kofman, the author of Conscious Business, by saying: “Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness, compassion without wisdom is folly.” Combining compassion with wisdom helps create a framework that effectively informs tough decisions and helps keep the bigger picture in sight. Figure 1-5 depicts this framework.


The compassion matrix

The lower left quadrant represents a lack of both compassion and wisdom. Without compassion, we’re indifferent; without wisdom, we are ignorant. Nothing good comes from this space, and a leader operating from this mindset is utterly incompetent.

In the upper left quadrant, we have compassion but lack the wise discernment to judge the impact of our actions. The result is that we risk damaging the cause we intended to support. People and organizations that are single-mindedly focused on compassion risk creating an atmosphere of naïveté and well-intended mistakes. If our organization is about to go bankrupt and we have compassion but no wisdom, we may not lay off the few people that could save the jobs of the majority.

The lower right quadrant characterizes a mind in which skills and expertise exist, but a wholesome intention is missing. This is a dangerous place. The 2008 financial crash came as a result of too many leaders and companies operating in this quadrant. Often manipulative leaders operating in this space can effectively deliver short-term results. In the long term, however, people will not follow their lead.

The upper right quadrant denotes the successful combination of compassion and wisdom creating benevolent leadership. We act compassionately while closely observing the impact of our actions. Wisdom is the thoughtful, measured, and discerning judgment that allows us to keep professional measures and strategic objectives in mind while acting to bring the most benefit and happiness to the people involved. Organizations like Patagonia, Whole Foods, LinkedIn, and Eileen Fisher are operating in this space, balancing compassion with a wise focus on the bottom line and strategic goals.

Take a moment to consider where in the matrix you would place yourself. Also consider where you would place the leaders in your organization that are closest to you.

MSC Leadership—Start with Yourself

Leading with mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion makes you more human and less leader. It makes you more you and less your title. It peels off the layers of status that separate you from the people you lead. Mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion make you truly human and enable you to create a more people-centered culture where your people see themselves and one another as humans rather than headcounts.

Michael Rennie, global leader of Organisation Practice for McKinsey & Company, having spent forty years making organizations and leaders more effective, concluded: “A good leader must understand what makes a good life and how to help people find that. A leader’s job is not to provide a paycheck and benefits: It’s about helping people be truly happy and find meaning in their work and life. When a leader succeeds with this, it unlocks real performance.”

MSC leadership enables this. Mindfulness allows you to be present and attentive to what really motivates the people you lead. Selflessness helps you get out of the way and provide the space and support they need to thrive. And compassion makes you connect on a truly human level and allows your people to trust that you have their best interests in mind. When leaders model mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion, they speak to employees’ intrinsic motivations. They enable a stronger sense of meaning, real happiness, connectedness, and contribution.

MSC leadership is simple in theory, but it requires courage and hard work to develop. And it requires that we take an unflinching look at ourselves, at how we interact with our people, and at how our organizations operate. It will radically transform your own performance, the performance of your people, and that of your organization. And along the way, you all benefit by becoming happier as you experience better human connections with a stronger sense of meaning and shared purpose.

And it all starts with you. 






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