We are facing a leadership crisis.
Gallup’s 2017 “State of the Global Workplace” survey found that only 15% of the global workforce is engaged, while 18% is “actively disengaged.” This failure in leadership is not due to any lack of effort; research suggests that organizations spend $3.4 billion annually on leadership development programs. With such a dismal return on investment, something is wrong with our current approach to leadership development.
We conducted a two-year research study to identify strategies for great leadership in the 21st century. We interviewed 250 C-suite executives from Microsoft, Google, McKinsey, LEGO and more; assessed 35,000 leaders; and trawled through thousands of studies on leadership. Our key finding? Effective leadership starts from the inside. 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. By “more effectively,” we mean in a way that taps into your and your people’s intrinsic motivations and sense of purpose.
Beyond this finding, we discovered three key mental qualities essential for great leadership: mindfulness, selflessness and compassion.
Mindfulness enables leaders to focus on the task at hand, enabling high productivity. Equally, it provides an ability to be truly present with people, clients and stakeholders. Presence in leadership creates better connectedness and loyalty and enables selflessness and compassion.
Selflessness is the opposite of ego-centeredness. A selfless leader is more concerned with the interests and needs of his or her people, organization and society at large than with his or her own needs and desires. Selflessness increases engagement and creativity.
Compassion enables leaders to focus on the well-being and happiness of their people and look for ways to benefit them while keeping the team and organizational objectives in mind. People with compassionate leaders know that they are supported; as a result, trust and cohesion thrives.
The great news is that mindfulness, selflessness and compassion are all trainable skills. Over the past two decades neuroscientists have discovered that our brain is plastic — it changes throughout our life based on how we use it. Through neuroplasticity, we can train these mental qualities the same way we train any part of our body — by going to the “gym.”
If we want to become more mindful, selfless and compassionate leaders, there are specific mental training exercises that we can do to rewire our brains. In the “mindfulness training gym,” we train our mind to be more focused and aware. In the “selflessness training gym,” we train our mind to be more humble and grateful. In the “compassion training gym,” we train our mind to be of greater benefit to ourselves and others. Through training in the mental gym, we enable mindfulness, selflessness and compassion to become our default way of working and leading.
Integrating mindfulness, selflessness and compassion into a leadership development program is a foundation for success. As one of the leaders we interviewed said, “Leadership today is about unlearning management and relearning being human.”
To start creating more human leaders who can create a more engaged and productive workforce, here are some tips for yourself that you can also consider integrating into your next leadership development program.
Be mindful: When you are mindful, you are aware of the landscape of your mind from moment to moment. Mindfulness helps you to notice and regulate your behavior and emotions. It helps you to better understand the behavior, reactions and emotions of the people you lead — and, in turn, create better relations and lead for more impact. Research published in Nature Neuroscience found that a short daily mindfulness practice causes changes in the structure and function of the brain, which enhances self-awareness.
Be selfless: Leadership is not about you but the people and the organization you lead. With selflessness, you take yourself out of the equation and consider the long-term benefits of others. Selflessness does not mean you become a doormat for others and refuse to stand up for yourself. Rather, it comes out of self-confidence and self-care. Here is a simple way of evaluating whether you are selfless in your leadership: When you make a decision, check your motivation; are you doing it for personal gain or for the benefits of others?
Be compassionate: Compassion is the intention to bring happiness to others. If you have ever had a compassionate leader, you know what it feels like: The person has your back and has your interest in mind. As a result, you feel safe, trusted, loyal and committed. It is a universal language that is understood by anyone, anywhere. If you want to bring more compassion into your leadership, make a habit of asking one simple question whenever you engage with anyone: How can I help this person have a better day? When it comes to leadership, nothing beats compassion.