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May 24, 2018

What's in the Mind of a Leader?

Rachel Salaman

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What’s in the Mind of a Leader?
Rasmus Hougaard

Mindfulness is Rasmus Hougaard's bread and butter. Through his company, Potential Project, he helps organizations around the world to use mindfulness skills to improve their effectiveness. He's seen it work wonders, delivering better focus, energy and productivity.

But, in recent years, he began to notice that mindfulness was just one contributory factor to a successful leadership mindset, not a complete solution in itself.

More was needed "for leaders to truly engage their workforce, to really create a sense of commitment, loyalty, and thereby more well-being and performance," he tells me in our Expert Interview podcast.

The Ingredients of a Great Leader

To find the missing ingredients, Hougaard teamed up with Harvard Business Review and embarked on a two-year study aimed at understanding what kind of mind leaders need to be successful in the 21st century.

The team assessed 35,000 leaders and interviewed around 250 executives, from companies as diverse as Microsoft, Google and Accenture.

At the end of the study, "there were three qualities [for a leader] that stood out really, really strongly," Hougaard says. These qualities were mindfulness, selflessness and compassion.

The Danger of Empathy

This insight forms the basis of his new book (and its accompanying app), "The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results," co-written with his Potential Project colleague, Jacqueline Carter.

In addition to their own work, the authors draw on other people's research, and there are a few bombshells lurking in the pages. For example, did you know that empathy can be dangerous? "That's a bit of a surprise for pretty much everybody nowadays," Hougaard laughs.

Explaining this, he starts with a proviso: "I have to say there is absolutely a strong, strong, strong need for empathy for leaders. Tons of research has shown that empathy allows leaders to put themselves in others' shoes and really help other people."

So what's the problem? In short, if you empathize too much, you can find yourself unable to lead effectively.

Leaving Emotions to One Side

Imagine a team member shares that she is close to breaking point. She's under tremendous pressure and is so stressed out that she can barely switch on her computer in the morning.

If you empathize with her, you'll feel her pain. You'll suffer with her. How do you go from that emotional state to professionally coaching her, and guiding her toward a better way to work? And that's not the only risk.

A Lack of Diversity

"It has also been proven that empathy leads to a lack of acting with diversity," Hougaard reveals. "We empathize more with the people that are like us, meaning we hire the people that are like us. We listen to the people that are like us, and we promote the people that are like us."

And finally, empathy is fleeting. You feel someone's pain in the moment, but the next day, you don't. You were supportive, and then you weren't. That doesn't help the underlying situation.

Adopting "Wise Compassion"

Rather than empathy, Hougaard suggests that leaders adopt a broader caring approach, which he calls "wise compassion." That word "wise" is important, because regular compassion may not do the trick.

Let's return to our imaginary team. "One person in this team is doing things that are detrimental to the team culture. If you're just purely bringing compassion into it, you don't want to tell this person because it's going to hurt his or her feelings and therefore not be nice," Rasmus says.

"But, that is completely misunderstood compassion. Compassion has to be paired with wisdom or professionalism, wise judgment, and discernment. In this case of a team member that is bringing bad vibes into the group, it's a real service to give feedback to this person, as hard and as tough as it can be. Otherwise, that person is not going to be able to improve and therefore stay in the job."

What’s in the Mind of a Leader?

Mindfulness, selflessness and compassion may sound a bit touchy-feely, but the best leaders also add "steely" to the mix. Ultimately, it's about finding a balance that delivers "truly human leadership," Hougaard reflects, in this audio clip from our Expert Interview podcast.

Listen to the full 30-minute interview in the Mind Tools Club.

What's your idea of compassion in the workplace? Join the discussion below!

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4 comments on “What's in the Mind of a Leader?”

  1. To me empathy has always been one of the best character traits to possess. Life is meaningless if we cannot put ourselves in other people's shoes. A leader without empathy is receiving only 50% of whatever is the goal.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ettie. I agree that empathy is important yet it has to be paired with 'wise wisdom' and balanced with other leadership skills.

  2. I have been teaching The Mind of A Leader for 16 years ...mindfulness, selflessness and compassion is important but they are like putting the cart before the horse. The intent must be crystal clear and its assimilated internally first. Only then the rest will play in harmony

    1. Thank you Ravi for sharing your thoughts with us. There are many factors that come into play of a great leader and I agree that they must be crystal clear on their intent. Knowing how they want to serve and for what purpose will help fuel at that they do.

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