I recently had the honor and pleasure of spending time with the Dalai Lama to discuss leadership in the 21st century. The outcome was published by Harvard Business Review and his message in short is that leaders today must be mindful, selfless and compassionate to be part of creating organizations, communities and societies where people thrive, flourish and collaborate.
Take a lesson in leadership from bees
The Dalai Lama finds that we humans can learn much from bees. He says: “Bees have no constitution, police, or moral training, but they work together in order to survive. Though they may occasionally squabble, the colony survives on the basis of cooperation.
Human beings, on the other hand, have constitutions, complex legal systems, and police forces; we have remarkable intelligence and a great capacity for love and affection. Yet, despite our many extraordinary qualities, we seem less able to cooperate.”
In today’s companies we have developed policies to abide by and built hierarchies of power to enable effective command and control and thereby effectiveness and productivity. But honestly, who likes to be told what to do? Policies and hierarchies don’t inspire human beings, but rather demotivates and disengages.
Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, a 70,000-employee pharmaceutical company put it this way: “You have to fight against hierarchy, which is one of the biggest obstacles to success and innovation. It’s important for leaders to diffuse power to people who are in a position to make a difference.”
The three qualities of leaders who engage their people
The Dalai Lama’s message is closely aligned with the results of a three year study that my colleagues and I at Potential Project recently conducted on 35,000 leaders from more than 1,000 companies in 100+ countries.
In essence, the study found that a movement is taking place in companies globally, to create more human-centric organizations with more truly human leaders. The three qualities of mindfulness, selflessness and compassion are foundational building blocks in that.
The ability to focus on the task at hand, on your people, and your priorities while at the same time being aware of the bigger picture.
Mindfulness is being present with a calm, focused, and clear mind.
You can train mindfulness with mental exercises that neurologically enhance your brain’s ability to focus along with cultivating mental strategies for an agile mindset. It’s all about enhancing your brain power.
A strong will and self-confidence combined with humility is the recipe for leadership that enables and engages your people. It’s basically about getting out of your own way. Leaders who curb their ego serve the interests of the companies they lead and create better results.
So, does selflessness mean becoming a push-over? Absolutely not! Paired with self-confidence it means inspiring and engaging your people. This is leadership for success in the long run.
Compassion enables us to understand and take in the perspective of others. It’s different from empathy in that rather than taking on other people’s pain you stay rational and able to keep the bigger picture in mind. This way you empower to skillful action.
Don’t mistake compassion for softness. Nothing could be less true. Compassion takes courage and strength. It’s having the difficult conversations, delivering the negative but necessary feedback and making the tough decisions that serve the greater good of the company.
Leadership is less about what we do – and more about who we are
Our human nature doesn’t truly appreciate traditional top down systems. On the other hand, we all like to be inspired by a mission and work hard on intrinsic motivation. This is a sacrosanct truth for good leadership today. Leadership is less about what we do and more about who we are.
As one executive in our research put it: “Leadership in the 21st century is about unlearning management and re-learning being human”.
Leaders also have a huge impact on their peoples’ wellbeing and as the Dalai Lama commented to me: “We should remember that we are visitors on this planet. We are here for 90 or 100 years at the most. During this time, we should work to leave the world a better place. What might a better world look like? I believe the answer is straightforward: A better world is one where people are happier. Why? Because all human beings want to be happy, and no one wants to suffer. Our desire for happiness is something we all have in common.”
With this obvious statement in mind, it is heartbreaking to look at the data on the state of leadership in organizations. 65% of employees would rather see their boss fired than get a pay raise. And McKinsey & Company found that 77% of leaders evaluate themselves as being motivational and good at engaging their people. However, a study by Gallup found that 82% of employees find their leaders uninspiring.
In short, we have a leadership crisis at hand, and it is hurting human flourishing as well as the success of companies. It is a massive loss of human potential.
However, having done research in leadership and supported many companies developing great leadership for the past decade, I am truly optimistic. I am observing a great change taking place. An increasingly greater emphasis is placed on developing positive values and behaviors, rather than just focusing on skills. And it makes sense, because leadership starts in the mind.
Great leadership begins with self-leadership
Only when we have good self-awareness can we have good self-mastery. And only when we understand and master ourselves can we understand and lead others. And only when we can lead others can we understand and lead the culture we are responsible for.
In other words, the mind creates our behaviour. Our behaviour shapes the people we lead and the people we lead create the cultures of our organization and thereby determine its performance.
Leadership starts with the mind and a massive movement of global companies are making great strides in cultivating more truly human leaders and human centered cultures with qualities like mindfulness, selflessness and compassion at the core. There are reasons for optimism.