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.

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We all want to be happy. We all want to live meaningful lives and contribute to the well-being of others. This truth also applies to work. People leaving the office every day with a sense of fulfillment will want to come back, focus on tough projects, and work hard. Because of meaningful intrinsic motivation, they will want to continue doing their best day after day, year after year. So how do you facilitate meaning, connectedness, and true happiness for the people you lead? Or, more specifically, what qualities of mind does a leader need to develop to be better at leading this changing workforce?

Based on extensive research—including surveys and assessments of tens of thousands of leaders—we have found that three mental qualities stand out as being critical for increasing engagement, happiness, and productivity:

1.     Mindfulness (M)

2.     Selflessness (S)

3.     Compassion (C)

These are foundational qualities of great leadership that we call MSC leadership. All three characteristics are closely linked. In fact, they are mutually enhancing. Mindfulness makes us more selfless, and selflessness makes us more compassionate. More compassion in turn, makes us more mindful and selfless. While it’s true that some leaders have innately developed these characteristics, our experience shows that all three can be learned, practiced, and enhanced.

The Three Qualities of Successful Leadership

1) Mindfulness:

At the center of the practice of mindfulness is learning to manage your attention. When you learn how to manage your attention, you learn how to manage your thoughts. You learn to hold your focus on what you choose, whether it’s this page, an email, a meeting, or the people you are with. In other words, you train yourself to be more present in the here and now.

There are two key qualities of mindfulness—focus and awareness. Focus is the ability to concentrate on a task at hand for an extended period of time with ease. Focus and awareness are complementary. Focus enables more stable awareness, and awareness enables focus to return to what we’re doing. They work in tandem. The more focused we become, the more we will also be aware—and the other way around. In mindfulness practice, you enhance focus and awareness together.

Once you begin applying mindfulness to your leadership, you’ll see that as your mindfulness increases, your perception of “self” starts to change. More specifically, a stronger sense of selfless confidence arises, helping you develop the second quality of MSC leadership.

2) Selflessness:

Selflessness is the wisdom of getting out of your own way, the way of your people, and the way of your organization to unleash the natural flow of energy that people bring to work. Selflessness combines strong self- confidence with a humble intention to be of service. With selflessness, trust increases because we have no secret agendas and followership strengthens because our selflessness sets free our people to be their best selves. Selflessness in leadership manifests itself as humility and service.

But what about the ego? What’s the role of the ego in selfless leadership? It’s small. We all have an ego that longs for attention and recognition. But great leaders are the ones who’ve tamed their ego so that it doesn’t hinder the larger interests of the people and the company they lead.

Many of the leaders we’ve talked to worry that selflessness will make them pushovers. But it’s not that simple. A leader’s selflessness has to be combined with self- confidence. If you have selflessness without self- confidence, you will indeed be a pushover. Therefore, selflessness cannot stand on its own. It must be paired with self-confidence.

As we let go of our sense of self- importance, we naturally begin attending more to other people: we show more interest in them and offer more care. In this way, compassion arises as a natural outgrowth of selflessness.

3) Compassion:

Compassion is the quality of having positive intentions for others. It’s the intention of being of service to other people’s happiness and the desire to help alleviate their problems. It’s the ability to understand others’ perspectives and use that as a catalyst for supportive action.

Compassion is different from empathy. Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, describes empathy as being when you take on the suffering of others and you both lose. With compassion, you are empowered to skillful action. The difference between compassion and empathy becomes clear through the following example. Imagine that you meet one of your colleagues at the office. He looks stressed and under tremendous pressure, on the edge of panic. If you reacted with empathy, you would feel sad for him, sit down with him and feel the stress and pressure together with him. In contrast, the compassionate response would be to put yourself in his shoes for a moment, notice his pain, and then see if you can help him address the challenges he is facing.

Compassion is often mistaken for softness, but nothing could be less true. Compassion is not about giving in to other people. Compassion requires courage and strength to sometimes have difficult conversations or make tough decisions. 

Compassion is often mistaken for softness, but nothing could be less true. Compassion is not about giving in to other people. Compassion requires courage and strength to sometimes have difficult conversations or make tough decisions. Let’s clarify a few misconceptions about compassion:

Two Myths About Compassion in the Workplace

1)    First, compassion is not soft, warm, or fuzzy. It’s hard. Compassion means giving an employee tough but appropriate feedback. Compassion means making difficult decisions for the good of the organization, even when it negatively impacts individuals.

2)    Second, compassion is an intention that does not necessarily change your actions but changes the way you conduct your actions. For example, there is a big difference between giving feedback out of compassion as opposed to giving it out of frustration.

Organizations with more compassionate cultures and leaders have stronger connections among people, better collaboration, more trust, enhanced commitment, and lower turnover. Also, compassion in organizations makes people feel more valued, feel an increased sense of dignity, and have greater pride in the collective culture. This all leads to more positive emotions, less anxiety, and quicker recovery from illness. Finally, compassionate company cultures make people act more for the common good within the organization— and beyond corporate walls.

Leading with mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion makes you more human and less leader. 

Leading with mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion makes you more human and less leader. It makes you more you and less your title. It peels off the layers of status that separate you from the people you lead. Mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion make you truly human and enable you to create a more people-centered culture where your people see themselves and one another as humans rather than headcounts.

A Mindfulness Practice to Train for Self-Compassion

1. Set a timer for five minutes.

2. Sit on a chair, comfortably, with a straight back and relaxed neck, shoulders, and arms. Close your eyes and breathe through your nose.

3. For a minute, direct your full attention toward your breathing. Simply observe your breath neutrally. Don’t try to control it. Allow your mind to stabilize and settle.

4. Recall an experience you have had, where you felt deeply cared for and loved.

5. Hold this experience in your mind, without analyzing or thinking about it. Simply sit with the experience that you are cared for.

6. If useful, visualize that you are filled with the love and warmth from anyone that cares for you.

7. To end the practice, repeat these words for yourself: May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I bring happiness to the ones I meet today.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results, by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. Copyright 2018 Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. All rights reserved.

Join Jacqueline Carter as she discusses her new book with James Gimian, the Executive Director for the Foundation for a Mindful Society (publisher of Mindful magazine and Mindful.org), and shares how mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion are the secret to better performance at work, and how leaders at any level and in any role can put them into practice daily. This event is presented by the Garrison Institute, Mindful magazine, and Potential Project and takes place on October 9th. For more information and to purchase tickets: garrisoninstitute.org/mindoftheleader