Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, of the global consulting firm Potential Project, make their case for mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion in leadership. Their survey of 30,000 leaders showed those characteristics are foundational — and often missing from leadership development programs. Practicing self-awareness, they say, leads to more focused and more people-focused organizations. They’re the authors of the new book, The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results.

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SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast, from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.

Before interviewing today’s experts on selfless, compassionate leadership, I’m going to spend five minutes doing their exercise on becoming more selfless. While normally I would do this silently, today I’m going to think out loud. So, I’m setting the timer on my phone; and while I will spend five minutes doing this, we will edit it to speed it up.

And for just a moment I’m just going to pay attention to my breath. Now, consider the people who made today possible for you. That would be my husband. Let’s see: the people at work today who came to all my meetings and participated.

Step five: allow a realistic sense of humility to arise. The world will keep spinning even if I’m not around. Life will go on. All right, so now I’m just going to sit for a minute with a sense of gratitude; that’s the last step…grateful for you awesome listeners out there without whom I cannot do any of this.

[Timer beeps]

OK so, feeling good. I feel like I should do that for every interview. This is just one of a few mindfulness practices that our guests today, Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, encourage people to do every day, because in the research and consulting work they’ve done, they’ve found that training the mind is key to a leader’s effectiveness.

They’ve written a guide to being more mindful, selfless, and compassionate. The book is called The Mind of the Leader. And they’re here to talk about how developing these characteristics will improve engagement and performance at work both for you and the people that you lead.

Rasmus and Jacqueline, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

RASMUS HOUGAARD: Thank you very much.

JACQUELINE CARTER: Thank you, Sarah. It’s great to be here.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, did I do that right?


RASMUS HOUGAARD: You definitely did it right. I don’t know if you can do it very wrong. The question is, why do you want to do this as the start of a day or start of a meeting or towards the end of the day, and the reason why we recommend this kind of selflessness exercise, reflection, is because it helps to deflate the ego a little bit by developing a stronger sense of gratitude and humility. What do you think, Jacqueline?

JACQUELINE CARTER: Well I’m more interested, Sarah, in how it made you feel. You said that you should do this before all interviews. What was your experience like?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yeah, well I felt so calm and centered and happy at the end of it. It was really — you know it was brief, but it was really impactful.

JACQUELINE CARTER: Yeah absolutely. And that’s what the science says, that the more that we do that it actually has a neurological impact on our brain wiring us to be able to do that more naturally. So, it’s a really, really, really great practice.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: You know, there’s a kind of working assumption in a lot of places, and a lot of us are taught that business is about competing different interests and that this push and pull of different selfish interests is what in the end creates capitalistic activity and energy and forward progress. So, what is the kind of hard-nosed business case for acting in a different way, in a more selfless way?

JACQUELINE CARTER: Well, I think that if leadership is all about me I probably shouldn’t be a leader. I think that when we look at what does selflessness mean, it doesn’t mean about not being competitive; it doesn’t mean about not being driven, about not being results oriented, about making the tough decisions. But if it’s really ultimately to serve my interests as opposed to the interests of my people and my organization, I’m probably ultimately — I might be successful if I’m super smart and you know have great skills; I may be successful for a short term, but what the research and our field work really showed us is that in the long term, people don’t want to follow you; ultimately you are going to erode trust in terms of people who don’t believe that you’re working with them because you’re not — you’re out for yourself; and ultimately you just simply won’t be as successful. You won’t realize your own potential let alone help your people realize theirs.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Does being a selfless leader mean that you have to be all things to all people? It sounds like it could be interpreted that way and that might sound to some people really exhausting.

JACQUELINE CARTER: I would say not at all. So, I think that one thing that’s really important to clarify is that selflessness doesn’t mean that I’m no longer in the picture, that I don’t matter, it’s all about you. That’s not what we mean at all. When we talk about selflessness, one of the things that we look at, as Rasmus mentioned, is it’s really about recognizing that we all have an ego; and if I am focused on things that are going to feed my ego, I’m not necessarily going to be doing the things that will be most helpful to other people.

At the same time one of the key findings is that we need to pair this sense of selflessness, this sense of being other focused with a very healthy strong self-confidence so that we make sure that we are taking care of ourselves, we’re setting good boundaries. And so combining selflessness with a sense of strong self-confidence, that is really what we found to be the sweet spot of leadership.

RASMUS HOUGAARD: I would add so that when you have that combination, you’re really enabling other people. You’re an enabling leader, which is really important because you just one piece of the puzzle; and if you think that is all about you, you’re not going to enable others, put them on stage develop them. So, if you have a lot of selflessness without having the confidence, as Jacqueline says, you will be a pushover; you’ll be a doormat. If you have low selflessness and low self-confidence you’re going to be a narcissist, and if you have low selflessness and strong confidence, you’re going to be an ego. So, we don’t want to fall in any of those three traps of being a pushover, a narcissist, or an egoist but rather have the combination of self-confidence which gives you the enabling quality of being a people-centered leader.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: One of the things you write in a book that really stuck with me is the idea of approaching people and almost asking yourself, how can I help this person have a better day. How did you come up with that, and why does that — why is that so powerful?

JACQUELINE CARTER: What inspired us was the over 250 C-suite executives that we met with, but also many, many, many of our clients that we work with all around the globe.
And the way that they approach their people, their teams, and specifically one of the things — and where that quote came from was actually from one of the leaders that we interviewed, Ted Kezios of Cisco. He actually said, I start every meeting with my team saying, how can I be of benefit to you today. But it wasn’t just him. We saw it over and over again is that strong orientation and intention to come and be of service to others as a leader.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: But I’m wondering — you know, there is a lot of research on how power affects the mind, but I’m also wondering about our environments. You know, if we are in an open office environment getting a million emails a second, sort of being constantly interrupted by people with, you know, requests that maybe they could figure out on their own if they tried, how does one stay patient and present and helpful and the kind of person who’s like, oh, how can I be of benefit to you, instead of the kind of person who’s like, would you please just go away and Google this before you come and ask me? Like, how do you how do you be nice in that moment?

RASMUS HOUGAARD: That is a great, great, great question. And you’re just you’re just drawing up the reality that all leaders nowadays are facing an increased level of distraction, increased level of information, increased level of busyness. To deal with that we need to have in mind that is clear, that is focused, that is calm. But then having said that, also to answer your question, compassion is not just about pleasing people and giving them what they want. Compassion is very much about doing the right thing, doing what they need. And we don’t always see what we need. But others may see that. As an example, if I have done a really poor presentation to a client, and Jacqueline sees that and I don’t see that, it is very compassion of her to come to me and say, Rasmus this and that in that presentation really did not work. And I won’t like to hear that, but I need to hear that. So, compassion can be really tough; actually, compassion mostly is tough. It’s not pleasing, but it is doing the right thing to people.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: In a way, you’re reframing compassion so that it’s not just focused on being all things to all people or feeling everybody’s pain. It’s really about helping them develop and doing what will serve them in the long run.

JACQUELINE CARTER: Absolutely. And I would say that one of the things that I think is really important about compassion is that it shouldn’t just be compassion alone. One of the things that we looked at was the importance of combining compassion with wisdom, which means that we need to sometimes make tough decisions. We need to sometimes you know lay people off or, like Rasmus said, give people tough feedback. That’s the wise thing to do. That may not feel nice, but that’s the right thing to do. And there’s two different ways that we can do that: we can do that with a sense of tightness and tension and frustration, or we can do that with the kindness that know that the wise thing to do is this even though it may not feel good for the people that are impacted by it.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, I know what you’re saying because I have had bosses earlier in my career who were so good at giving critical feedback and who were so good at even firing people or moving people out of the organization that people would leave feeling energized and kind of like, oh, I’m so glad that my next step is now clear to me because this person was honest with me that there actually was no path for me here and helped me get another job that was better suited to my skills. But I can also see that there will be people listening who have maybe not had a boss like that and who are thinking to themselves, that’s not possible, you know, that doesn’t exist; this is just a way for leaders to feel better about firing people; I’m not on board with that. So, do you ever get any kind of skeptical pushback from people who are like, that’s too good to be true. I’ve never had a boss, like, that, that doesn’t exist.

RASMUS HOUGAARD: Absolutely. And so we work with more than 500 global organizations, and these organizations like Accenture and Microsoft and, you know, just normal, big very, very fast-paced and hardnosed organizations. Obviously, many leaders within this organization find at first glance, wow, this is a bit of a soft or strange way of thinking leadership. And yes, what we’re proposing here is definitely a bit of against a stream about how leadership has taught and thought in many organizations. But it’s also as simple as this: all people, whether they are leaders or employees in any organization, wants to be happy, wants to feel good in the work; everybody wants to be connected to others. That’s just human drivers for all of us. We all want to have a sense of meaning and purpose. We all want to feel that we are contributing to something positive. So, if we as leaders can start to tap into people’s need for these primary needs, then we will have a better impact, and this is just a fundamental truth that goes for all organizations. So, maybe it’s against the culture and what people are normally thinking about leadership, but it also is just really logical. There’s a lot of science behind it.

So, yes, there is skepticism. But yes, when people start to practice it, they also see the benefits of it and then they start to adopt and change the culture and their behaviors.
JACQUELINE CARTER: One of the things that we found really interesting was, we asked all of the leaders that we surveyed to map out to at what times of the day did they feel most focused.

And what we found, and that’s what the research says, is most of us do have — if we get a good night’s sleep, which is critical — most of us do have our most focused time, our most expansive mind, first thing in the morning. And so that’s just makes sense that I would want to do the things that I would need the most expansive mind to do. And like I said it’s not about being perfect; it’s about being strategic about how you use your precious mind. Because we all know that we don’t have more hours in the day, but we sure can use them a lot better if we’re more focused and intentional about them.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: What about something like priorities and goal setting? How do you kind of set out what your plan for the day is in a way that will make sure you’re focused on what you care about and not getting pulled in a million directions?

JACQUELINE CARTER: I think the starting point is if you’re already only doing that at the beginning of the day, you’re probably, like most of us, already scheduled and booked in for things that may or may not be your top priority. So I think it’s really important to make sure that you have a longer-term view of looking out over the next month, looking out over the next weeks. And then when you get to the day is when you need to then sit in what we recommend is something we call 2 2 2, which when you get into the office, when you start to work in the morning, you start with two minutes of mindfulness practice to be able to cultivate more focus, more calm, more clarity of mind, and then two minutes of prioritization, which is really about reflecting on what are the most important things that I really need to get done today and hopefully again you referring back to those strategic goals and objectives that you’ve set out when you’ve looked at the longer-term focus.
But then the next two minutes is really about planning; and in this planning exercise — and this is really what we see as successful leaders versus leaders that maybe aren’t so successful — is they’re ruthless about their calendar. For example, if there’s a meeting that they don’t have an agenda for, they cancel it, or they just let the people know I’m not sure showing not because it’s not going to be focused. Or if they have a day where it’s back-to-back meetings and they know that they’re not going to be mentally effective going back to back, they block in time for them to be able to have five minutes even between meetings to be able to have more reflection or they cancel some meetings even though they’re important because they simply know that they’re not going to be at their best.

So, it’s really about I think in terms of prioritization really being mindful about what you need to do and also realistic about what you can do and then setting out those goals and intentions to be able to make sure that you’re managing to manage yourself the best that you possibly can moment to moment.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Specifically, how much time do you think we would all save our lives in our organizations if we were more mindful and focused with things like email and meetings? Can you estimate it?

RASMUS HOUGAARD: You can estimate it. Carlsberg did some estimates on this and looked at what happened when they implemented mindful guidelines for meetings, and they found that they actually made meetings that were on average 30 percent shorter. So, just imagine with all the meetings you have through the day if you cut 30 percent of those, and that’s just on meetings. With emails it’s probably the same; if you’re more mindful, there may be a lot of messages that you simply just decide to ignore because you’re only in CC or you don’t need to respond. So, there’s a lot of time to save here. And I think one of the reasons why many organizations, most organizations nowadays are really embracing mindfulness is because they see the proactivity impacts coming of people being more focused, more calm, and more clear minded.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: If a leader succeeds in becoming more mindful, more self-aware, doing all these things, what is some of the impact that they’ll start to see in their organization?

RASMUS HOUGAARD: So the short answer is, you will start to see more people centric organizations, more people centric cultures where people are put before many other priorities. So, the people’s well-being, the people’s sense of connectedness and meaning takes center stage.

One of the great examples here I think is Marriott. We worked with many, many organizations, and in our research, we really looked at which organizations are focusing on people and Marriott certainly came up as one of the absolute most people-centric organizations that we have ever encountered. And it makes sense when you look at their business philosophy which is really simple. So, in our interview with the CEO Arne Sorenson, he said, our business philosophy is this: if we take care of our people, they take care of guests, and business take care of itself. And I think that goes for any industry. If you take care of your people, they will take care of whatever you are doing, and then business take care of itself. And this is the kind of organizations that you will see coming out of developing leaders that are more mindful, that are more selfless, and are more compassionate in their approach to their people.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, I want all of our listeners to leave today feeling like super good and calm and kind and compassionate and grateful. So, they’re about to finish the IdeaCast and go on to doing something else with their time. Maybe they’re commuting or working out or cleaning the house. What should they do as soon as this podcast ends to start putting your advice into practice?

RASMUS HOUGAARD: That’s a very good question. Just follow a few minutes now of a guided practice that I’ll take you through.

So, just if you’re sitting, just stay seated. Close your eyes for a moment, and just tune into your breath. Just sit and feel the experience of your breath now. Let go of any thoughts of what you have just listened to. And just sit and come to peace. Now, ask yourself, who is the next person that you’ll be meeting when you get up off your chair. And remember who this person is and specifically, does this person has any challenges or anything where you can support this person. And whatever that is, make a commitment for yourself that you will try to give this person something that will make him or her day better, that he or she will be slightly more happy by means of your interaction with him or her. So, go out into the world with as strong a sense of compassion. This is about other people and their happiness. And that’s it.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Wow. Rasmus, that was really nice. Thank you both. Thank you, Jacqueline and Rasmus for joining me today. This was really fun.

RASMUS HOUGAARD: Thank you so much.

JACQUELINE: It means so much to us. This is obviously stuff that we’re ridiculously passionate about. So, thank you.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. He’s the founding and managing director of Potential Project, and she’s an international partner and North American director. They’re the authors of The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.