AMA Quarterly spoke with Jacqueline Carter, the co-author with Rasmus Hougaard of The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018). Carter discussed the three qualities business leaders need to possess and why they need them. Here, an excerpt of that interview:
What are the things that erode mindfulness for CEOs and other leaders? That’s one of the big concepts in your book.
Jacqueline Carter: The simplest answer—and it wasn’t so much for the C-suite executives that we met with, but they should be aware of it for their organizations—the No. 1 thing, I think, is distractions. There are too many. And I know it sounds so practical and so simple. Most of the executives we met with were pretty good about knowing that they needed focus time, undisturbed focus time, to get things done and to have big-picture perspectives.
One of the mantras we came up with was, “It’s the survival of the focused right now,” because if you are not focused, you are going to burn out. You’re not going to be a good leader today and you certainly are not going to be a successful leader in the future.
The other factor you name is compassion, and it seems to be that there is a big deficit of compassion in the world today. What kinds of things are eroding that, and what can you as a leader do to bring that compassion, to yourself and through your organization?
JC: I think what is eroding compassion is busyness. Too often, as a leader or a team member, we walk into a room and we see someone is having a bad day, and you say, “I don’t have time for this.” And that sucks, because that’s not our nature. Our natural orientation is that human beings know we’re stronger and better when we care about each other and are kinder.
I think the other thing that’s eroding it is a lack of social cohesion. The organizations we were really inspired by, like Marriott, they get that if a housekeeper isn’t happy and isn’t smiling when somebody is walking down the hall, [the whole organization is] in trouble. In an organization like that, everybody matters, and we have to have a focus on our people and taking care of our people. The CEO isn’t the one serving the front-line customers.
The third concept you wrote about is selflessness.
JC: This is one I think we were most inspired by. It’s really interesting to write about. The mindfulness makes sense. We’re living in a world of digital distractions and information overload—survival of the focused, people just “got” that. Compassion as well, it kind of makes sense. But the selflessness really came out from our research. We were not looking for that, but it was really interesting.
What we know, and the science backs us up on this, is that as we rise up through the ranks of leadership, it actually has a negative impact on our brain. We actually start to think of ourselves as being pretty important. The really inspiring CEOs said the No. 1 job was to keep their own ego in check so that they didn’t become egocentric.
So what do you, if you are a leader, need to do to encourage this mindfulness, compassion, and selflessness in your life? What can people do to remind their leaders that they need to be these things?
JC: These qualities have to resonate with you. They’re meaningless if they don’t have value for you. The encouragement that we have is for leaders to reflect on being more present, more focused—whatever word you want to use, if mindfulness doesn’t work for you—just if the idea of being more here, now, is that valuable to you? Is the idea of making it less about you, is that valuable? If it’s “all about me,” maybe then I shouldn’t be a leader! And do you value other people? Does caring about other people, being of benefit to others, wanting to have workplaces where people are kind and care about each other, is that important to you?
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