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Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hourgaard of Potential Project recently published The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results, a book about how awareness can allow you to be an effective leader. The Garrison Institute hosted a book launch event with Jacqueline that was moderated by James Gimian, Executive Director of the Foundation for a Mindful Society. The following is an excerpt of their discussion.
James Gimian: What was the motivating force behind your writing The Mind of the Leaderwith Rasmus Hourgaard?
Jacqueline Carter: We wanted to find out what the key challenges were facing leaders today, and some of the things that could really support them to be able to be the more effective leader they wanted to be. What we found, in particular, when we started really getting into it, is there’s really a leadership crisis. That was really the first point of call for us is that, when we look at—and many of you are probably familiar with the Gallup surveys that come out every year, in terms of how many people are engaged.
We know that, in terms of the global workforce, 24% of the global workforce is actively disengaged at work, and that number seems to be increasing every year, instead of going in the other direction. We found surveys, including one that said 65% of employees would forgo a pay raise to see their leader fired.
And the other thing was perception. There was a McKinsey study that identified that 77% of leaders thought they were doing a pretty good job leading. They thought that their people were pretty engaged. 82% of their people disagreed. So, just this real disconnect.
In addition to that, the many leaders we talked to said they feeling very busy and overwhelmed, saying, “You know what? I walk into a room, and then I see that maybe you’re not having a good day, and I really would love to find out how you’re doing, and I don’t have time. And it makes me feel like crap as a leader, because I really should, but I don’t have time.”
A lot of leaders are saying they’re not necessarily being the effective leader they wanted to be, to support their people, to support their organizations.
And so a lot of leaders are saying they’re not necessarily being the effective leader they wanted to be, to support their people, to support their organizations. So, that was really what we found, and that was really the starting point–just this leadership crisis and how tough it is to be an effective leader today. Then we started saying, “Okay, well, that’s depressing, so let’s try to bring some hope into this.”
We partnered with Harvard Business Review, just an incredible partner, because we wanted to make this a research adventure for us, and we thought if we just interviewed all of our own clients, nobody would buy the book, because it could possibly be regarded as a self-selected study that wasn’t valid.
By partnering with Harvard, we were able to assess over 35,000 leaders in over 72 different countries. We were able to interview over 250 C-suite executives. We engaged leading researchers specifically looking from a neurological perspective, so neuroscience. In addition to that, we did also tap into our very extensive client network. What we found is that three qualities came up again and again and again, in terms of how important they are to be able to address the leadership crisis that so many of us experience today.
The first one is mindfulness. Just to give a simple definition, just being able to be here now. Being able to be present with the people you’re with, with the task at hand. Because if we’re not, we’re wasting our time and everyone else’s. And being present in today’s crazy work is actually a lot more difficult than we think. So, these are simple in principle, but not easy.
The second quality that we identified—and it was just so inspiring to us to hear this from leaders—is selflessness. The definition for that is not letting our own egoistic tendencies get in the way, and egoistic tendencies can be about self-preservation. It can be also feeling vulnerable and not wanting to share that with other people, because you’re going to seem weak. So, not letting our own egoistic tendencies get in the way.
And the third one is compassion. We heard this from CEOs who talked to us about how critical compassion was today in organizations, because we live in such complex world—many of us are working with people that we may not even see on a regular basis. We’re trying to bring more diversity into our cultures, because there’s so much benefit to that. But we’re working in such under-pressure environments that, if we don’t take care of each other, if we’re not kind to each other, if we aren’t intentional about really making sure that we support and care about each other, we’re not going to be able to perform well, we’re not going to be able to collaborate well, and we’re not going to be able to meet the challenges we’re all facing. We’ve got to be more in this together.
We’re working in such under-pressure environments that, if we don’t take care of each other, if we’re not kind to each other, if we aren’t intentional about really making sure that we support and care about each other, we’re not going to be able to perform well.
Building trust, building cohesion, is really part of a strategic aspect of compassion, including compassion also being having tough conversations with people so that we can grow and develop.
Those were the three qualities.
James Gimian: How do you bring this into organizations? We’ve heard that places like Target and Walmart are starting to call the skillsets that mindfulness prepares people for—things like emotional regulation and better collaboration—are actually power skills, and they want them in the employees that they need for the future, so they’re adopting these kinds of training programs. Are there other examples you can give us?
Jacqueline Carter: One organization is Accenture—a global consulting firm we work with that has up to 400,000 employees. They are focused on consulting, strategy, technology, very fast-paced, very dynamic—the life bread of Accenture is based on the minds of people and how much they care about them.
It was actually really inspiring to us. One of the stories that they shared with us a number of years ago—and this is really about the changing nature, I think, of workplaces today—is that a number of years ago, they went public in The Washington Post. Ellyn Shook, who is the CHRO, and Pierre Nanterme, the CEO, basically said that after many, many years of using their performance-management system, which was basically, like many of us have probably experienced, that annual review leaders and employees hate. You go through this horrible process where you fill out how well you think you’re doing, and I fill out how well I think I’m doing.
Then you have this horrible meeting that is just so de-motivating for everybody because it’s based on things that are so outdated and wrong, and then you get a rank for how well you’re doing, and that actually determines whether or not you get a bonus this year. Everybody hates it.
They said after many, many years of having this performance-management system that served them, they were completely ditching it because they realized that, if they were going to actually engage people and focus on their people and build a more resilient, more kind, more caring—more “truly human” was actually the word that they came up with, where human beings were coming to work.
Managers were not having annual performance reviews, but were having real conversations with people. They were not going to be able to continue to be successful in terms of engaging not only their existing workforce, but definitely the workforce of tomorrow. So, they completely threw out that performance-management system, and they introduced instead the opportunity for people to just have really good conversations with their employees about their development, and looking at being present.
That’s part of where these skills came in. If I’m not just checking boxes, I have to actually sit down and be present with you and ask you questions and make sure that I’m engaging you, and make sure that it’s not about me, that it’s actually about “How can I support you and your development?” That’s really where these qualities that used to be seen as “soft” qualities were actually the ones that the leaders needed most.
So, the most successful and effective leader is no longer the one who had the smartest strategy or the best spreadsheet. It was really the leaders who could be able to inspire—because these are practices; it’s not about being perfect, but to really be able to support and cultivate human potential. So, that’s one example.
They see mindfulness as a strategic imperative—especially with Accenture, just to give a case study. And it’s not to say that they’re perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and they would not say that they were. What they see is their people are too busy, they’re under too much pressure, they’re always on, and they’re completely distracted. They’re not able to be their best.
It’s not just about health and well-being. It’s actually about performance, because, again, if your people are not able to be present with each other, if your leaders are not able to be present with their team, they’re not able to develop them. They’re not able to realize their potential.
James Gimian: So, we’ve always had exemplary leaders, inspiring leaders, and the leadership of Accenture sounds that way. How do we go from that to the area that you’ve long worked in, the whole culture change or organizations (which we all experience as toxic)? Can you give us a hint, from where you sit, about how much you think it’s possible, and what the steps or the signs might be to go from a growing number of inspired companies and leaders, who are doing as you say, to something that stands a chance of actually transforming the workplace in our society? Do you see that happening? And if so, how and when?
Starting culture change doesn’t have to be necessarily big, lofty ideas. When we’re working with organizations, it can be really simple entry points. A simple entry point could be—meetings.
Jacqueline Carter: Culture change is tough. The thing that we’ve seen over and over again with the organizations that we work with is that we have allowed things like technology—just to use a really simple example—creep into our lives, creep into the workplace, and become endemic as part of our culture, without us really challenging actually: Is it serving us, or are we serving it?
How Mindfulness Creates A Competitive Edge Definition
So, a lot of times—and I think that this is where we really look—starting culture change doesn’t have to be necessarily big, lofty ideas. When we’re working with organizations, it can be really simple entry points. A simple entry point could be—meetings.
Why is it that most of our meetings are so ineffective? Most of the time, it’s because people are simply not fully present. They’re not paying attention. They either walk in and they’re still in the last meeting that they were at, or they’re thinking about all of the things they have to do. Maybe they’re subtly checking their device underneath the table when no one can pay attention.
Then when I do that, you start looking at it, too, because you’re thinking “Okay, it’s okay.” Or maybe it’s even worse. We’re on a conference call, and we’re not using video, so nobody knows that we’re not actually paying attention, because we are so pressed for time. And what does that do to the quality of our collaboration? It means meetings take longer. It means that we’re not as present with each other. And it’s an illusion. We’re multitasking and it’s a total illusion. We think that we don’t have a choice, and that’s become acceptable within corporations today.
It’s crazy, because we know, from a brain science perspective, we actually can’t multitask. And when we try to, we’re less efficient, we’re more stressed, we make more mistakes, and we’re not actually very good colleagues to work with. And so you talk about culture change—culture change doesn’t have to be big, lofty shifts: we’re all gonna be mindful.
It’s like, “Hey, let’s start with something really simple. Why don’t we start with one meeting a week where we get rid of our devices, and we all just try to pay attention to each and really be fully present, to the extent that we can? Let’s see how that goes.”
“Let’s start with something really simple. Why don’t we start with one meeting a week where we get rid of our devices, and we all just try to pay attention to each and really be fully present, to the extent that we can?”
So, when you talk about case studies and entry points and how we start with organizations, sometimes it is as simple as that. The organizations we’ve worked with can have a huge ROI, because what people find—surprise, surprise—when we’re actually all paying attention to each other, meetings take less time, there’s more agreement, and there’s more alignment.
There’s less need for follow-up, because people were actually there when they made the decisions, so they actually know what the decision was. It sounds so basic. Here we are, talking about leadership and trying to save the world—which I would love to talk more about—but why don’t we start with just something simple about the culture, and look for small ways? That simple change can then build to: Okay, let’s look at something as simple as prioritization. Or something as simple as: How do you bring more creativity into the workplace? Or what about that inbox? What about your mechanisms for interoffice communication?
When you start to just kind of pick off some of the pain points—that’s what we really look for when we work with an organization. What are some of the pain points that everybody experiences as being tough? What if we could just pick off some of those easy ones to get some quick wins? The way to do it is just a little bit of mindfulness practice so that you can be a little bit more self-regulated.
It’s such an amazing time to be working with organizations today, because I think that the pain point has gotten so bad for people. One leader with a large, global consulting firm that we work with, said to us, “You know what, Jacqueline? I have attended every performance-enhancement training. I have tried every app to be able to be more organized. I’m still finding that I can’t get ahead of my inbox. I’m still up to all hours of the night, and I’m just feeling constantly behind.”
This is a senior, senior, senior partner. He said, “I just don’t feel like I can. I don’t have any more time in the day.” It was almost like, for him, mindfulness was the last resort. It was like, “I don’t have any other choice, so maybe I’ll train my mind to be a little bit more calm, so that, at least from an internal perspective, I can find a little bit more peace, a little bit more focus, a little bit more clarity, so that maybe then that will actually help me, because the chaos is going to continue, and it’s gonna probably get worse.”
James Gimian: Our experience, in talking to leaders at corporations and non-profits shows that desperation is a big motivator. When people say, “Why, after all this time, mindfulness is of interest to people in the corporate sector?” It’s because nothing else has worked. It’s remarkable.
This article originally appeared on GarrisonInstitute.org.
The 3 Qualities of a Successful Leader
Based on extensive research, Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter reveal the three qualities present in the minds of great leaders.Read More
Over the course of a couple of decades, meditation has migrated from Himalayan hilltops and Japanese Zendos to corporate boardrooms and corridors of power, including Google, Apple, Aetna, the Pentagon, and the U.S. House of Representatives.
On a personal level, leaders are taking note of empirical research documenting meditation’s potential for reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and improving emotional regulation. Mindfulness meditation—the practice of cultivating deliberate focused attention on the present moment—has caught on as a way to bring focus, authenticity, and intention to the practice of leadership. Daniel Goleman and Bill George have described mindfulness as a means to listen more deeply and guide actions through clear intention rather than emotional whims or reactive patterns.
In an age in which corporations and public organizations are increasingly under attack for short-term thinking, a dearth of vision, and perfunctory reactions to quick stimuli, it’s worth posing the question: Can mindfulness help organizations—not just individual leaders—behave more intentionally? Practically speaking, can organizational leaders integrate mindfulness practices into strategic planning processes?
How Mindfulness Creates Space to Innovate
Seventy years ago, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who had just emerged from years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, shed some light on the question with a now-classic teaching. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” he wrote in 1946. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Mindfulness—the practice of watching one’s breath and noticing thoughts and sensations—is, at its core, a practice of cultivating this kind of space. It’s about becoming aware of how the diverse internal and external stimuli we face can provoke automatic, immediate, unthinking responses in our thoughts, emotions, and actions.
As the University of Virginia’s Timothy Wilson has argued, our brains are not equipped to handle the 11-plus million bits of information arriving at any given moment. For the sake of efficiency, we tend to make new decisions based upon old frames, memories, or associations. Through mindfulness practice, a person is able to notice how the mind reacts to thoughts, sensations, and information, seeing past the old storylines and habitual patterns that unconsciously guide behavior. This creates space to deliberately choose how to speak and act.
Through mindfulness practice, a person is able to notice how the mind reacts to thoughts, sensations, and information, seeing past the old storylines and habitual patterns that unconsciously guide behavior.
Organizations, like individuals, need this kind of space.
As UCLA’s Richard Rumelt, a leading expert on strategic planning, writes in his book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, one of the quintessential components of good strategy is the ability to take a step out of the internal storyline and shift viewpoints. “An insightful reframing of a competitive situation” he writes, “can create whole new patterns of advantage and weakness. The most powerful strategies arise from such game-changing insights.”
To craft strategy on the basis of what Harvard’s Richard Chait and other scholars have called generative thinking, it’s not only necessary to identify a coherent set of policies or actions in response to a problem or opportunity, it’s also necessary to elucidate the full range of values, assumptions, and external factors at play in a decision-making situation. It’s essential to step back and ask not only whether the team has identified the right plans or solutions but whether they have identified the right questions and problems in the first place. All this requires space between stimulus and response.
Three Ways to Use Mindfulness When Planning
So how can organizations bring more space to strategic planning? Is the answer to simply recruit leaders and board members who engage in contemplative practices?
It can’t hurt. Steve Jobs, a regular meditator, made use of mindfulness practice to challenge operating assumptions at Apple and to enhance creative insight in planning. Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Capital has likewise used mindfulness not only as a tool for increasing productivity but also enhancing situational awareness as a strategist.
How Mindfulness Creates A Competitive Edge Development
But it’s also possible to build mindfulness directly into planning exercises.
One of us recently had the opportunity to test the concept of mindful strategy with a group of middle managers and senior executives from the legal, advertising, finance, and non-profit sectors in the Bay Area. The experience gave us a clearer practical understanding of what works when it comes to integrating mindfulness practice into strategy retreats.
- Take mindful moments: One simple approach is to integrate straightforward mindfulness activities into meetings and retreats. By punctuating planning exercises with deliberate time for those present to simply connect with their breath and recognize unnecessary distractions, organizers can create the conditions for intuition to arise. As Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter explain, it’s possible to integrate simple practices of focus and awareness throughout a workday.
- Explore alternative scenarios: It’s also possible to inject an element of mindfulness without meditating at all. Scenario planning exercises, for example, open decision-makers to numerous, plausible alternative “stories of the future” that inherently challenge assumptions and mindsets. Corporations including Shell and governments including Singapore have used such practices—first and foremost for their heuristic value—with considerable success for decades. Much like meditation, the practice of nonjudgmentally assessing different plausible futures is a practical way of shining light on old unexamined thought patterns and making room for new ideas.
- Visualize positive outcomes: As Daniel Goleman argues, positivity is part and parcel of focused attention. “Pessimism narrows our focus,” he writes, “whereas positive emotions widen our attention and our receptiveness to the new and unexpected.” Organizational leaders can benefit from imagining organizational “end-states” during strategy sessions. This can be as simple as posing a variant of the question Goleman suggests—“if everything works out perfectly for our organization, what would we be doing in ten years?”—and taking time to contemplate.
Mindfulness practices like these can help leaders—and their organizations—identify which ideas and aspirations are important and which assumptions limit their growth. They’re useful not only for attaining enlightenment but also for making sense of a changing world.