The three essential traits for effective leadership

A more human form of leadership is needed for organisations to be truly successful

Leaders must be mindful, selfless and compassionate to be truly effective, according to founder and managing director of the Potential Project, Rasmus Hougaard.

Speaking at a Harvard Business Review event launching his new book The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results, Hougaard said that the “starting point [for being a good leader] is to really understand ourselves”.

“It’s not going to make a difference if it’s not lived,” he said.

Hougaard shared findings from surveys of more than 35,000 leaders and more than 250 top executives, conducted by himself and the team at the Potential Project for his book.

The surveys found, he reported, that 73% of leaders feel unmindful most of the time, while 67% described their minds as cluttered. Additionally, 65% often fail to complete tasks, and 96% would like to be more mindful.

Hougaard, who is also a leading international authority on mindfulness, conceded that everybody’s mind inevitably wanders at times. But leaders must counteract this as best they can by organising their time accordingly and practising techniques to keep themselves in the moment, he said.

“It’s having the self-awareness to know when our mind is wandering to that meeting we just had,” he said. “Because otherwise we’re having a conversation and we’re not present, and that feels very disrespectful to the other person.”

He added: “It’s important for leaders to really pay attention, otherwise you’re just wasting your time.”

Being a selfless leader is about moving away from ego, Hougaard continued, referring to the second key leadership trait. Otherwise it “narrows your vision” as a leader, “puts you in a CEO bubble”, and means your “buttons can easily be pushed”, he said.

Hougaard cited the example of Carlsberg CEO Cees ’t Hart who, when he started the job in 2015, refused to use a lift keycard given to him that would allow him to travel alone to his office on the 27th floor. Instead he saw the lift as a prime chance to interact with employees, and moved his office to a more accessible and visible space on the first floor. “That’s one great example of egoless leadership,” said Hougaard.

Regarding compassion, as the third trait, Hougaard cited figures from his surveys that found, while 91% of leaders feel compassion is really important for leadership, 80% would like to embrace it but don’t know how.

“Compassion is the universal language of human connections. Without compassion it’s all just going to be lip service,” he said.

He added that compassion must be combined with wisdom, however, so that the right decisions are still made to ensure the organisation’s success. He gave the example of having to make redundancies so a business survives tough times, explaining that compassionate leadership is often about how difficult decisions and processes are made and conducted.

“It’s how we do all the things we have to do, but with a more stable and kind mind,” he said.

Hougaard said he was encouraged by how dramatically, in recent years, a more humanised form of leadership had risen up the agenda and become much more widely accepted and advocated.

He recounted an experience he’d had when he had first “started bringing mindfulness to companies”, where he’d been given a full day with a leadership team. “After lunch I was back in the room standing and waiting, and people didn’t show up!” he recalled, saying that the situation is very different now.

“Something is happening here,” he said, regarding a widespread shift in models and perceptions of leadership.