Aspirations for the New Year

As a fractious year draws to a close, may we choose to be guided by true nobility. Here is a story to help us discern the great power inherent in action guided by kindness and empathetic wisdom.........


 This is from the late Aikido master Terry Dobson, one of the early Westerners to learn Aikido under the founder Morehei Ueschiba. He held a fourth degree black belt in the art. On returning to the USA in 1970 he was a writer and taught Aikido and worked with conflict resolution for over 20 years.

 A turning point came in my life one day on a train in the suburbs of Tokyo, in the middle of a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty - a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows. At one station the doors opened and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car, he wore laborer’s clothing and was big, drunk and dirty. His front was stiff with dried vomit. His eyes bugged out, a demonic, neon red. His hair was crusted with filth. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple, and it was a miracle that the baby was unharmed.

 Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled towards the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion.

 I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood up. I was young then, some twenty years ago and in pretty good shape. I stood six feet and weighed 225. I had been putting in a solid eight hours of Aikido training every day for the past three years. I liked to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. The trouble was that my martial skill was untested in actual combat, because as students of Aikido we were not allowed to fight.

My teacher, the founder of Aikido, taught us each morning that the art was devoted to peace. “Aikido,” he said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate other people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

I listened to his words. I tried hard. I wanted to quit fighting. I even went so far as to cross the street a few times to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. They’d have been happy to test my martial ability. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart of hearts, however, I was dying to be a hero. I wanted a chance, an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

“This is it!” I said to myself as I got to my feet.: This slob, this animal, is drunk and mean and violent. People are in danger. If I don’t do something fast, somebody will probably get hurt.” Seeing me stand up, the drunk saw a chance to focus his rage. “AHA!” he roared, “A FOREIGNER! YOU NEED A LESSON IN JAPANESE MANNERS!” He punched the metal pole once to give weight to his words.

I held on lightly to the commuter-strap overhead. I gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I gave him every bit of nastiness I could summon up. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to be the one to move first. And I wanted him mad, because the madder he got the more certain my victory. I pursed my lips and blew him a sneering, insolent kiss. It hit him like a slap in the face. “ALL RIGHT! he hollered, “YOU’RE GONNA GET A LESSON.” He gathered himself for a rush at me. He’d never know what hit him.

A fraction of a second before he could move, someone shouted “Hey!” It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous lilting quality of it. As though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something and he had suddenly stumbled upon it - “Hey!” I wheeled to my left and the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as if he had a most important, most welcome secret to share. There was not a trace of fear or resentment about him.

 “Come here” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk, “come here and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly; the big man followed as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

 The old man continued to beam at the laborer, “Whatcha been drinking?” His eyes sparkling with interest. “I been drinking Sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man. “Oh, that’s wonderful!” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see I love Sake too. Every night me and my wife, she’s seventy-six you know, we warm up a little bottle of Sake and we take it out into the garden and we sit on our old wooden bench and we watch the sun go down and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great grandfather planted that tree and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree has done better than I expected though, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It’s gratifying to watch when we take our Sake and go out to enjoy the evening, even when it rains.” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling, happy to share his delightful information.

 As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften, his fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah” he said, “I love persimmons too…” His voice trailed off. “Yes,” said the old man smiling “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.” “No,” replied the laborer, “My wife died.” He hung his head. Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a home, I don’t have a job, I don’t have any money, I don’t have anywhere to go. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. A spasm of pure despair rippled through his body.

 There I was, standing in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my ‘make this world safe for Democracy’ righteousness, and I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

 The train arrived at my stop and as the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically, “My” he said, “That is a difficult predicament. Sit down here and tell me about it.”

 I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking his filthy, matted hair.

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words.

 I had just seen Aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it is love.


A New Frontier in Pilot Training

The Introduction of Mindfulness and Awareness Practices for Pilots

“You can fly an airplane by the numbers, pushing and pulling at the appropriate time, which will very definitely get you into the air and where you are going. Or you can become a real pilot and develop a feel for the airplane which makes you part of it. Those who seem one with the airplane do so primarily because their senses are connected to it. They are feeling and hearing it, as well as seeing it.”

Budd Davisson, CFI since 1967, aviation writer, photographer and magazine editor

In today’s rapidly changing and device-dependent world, many industries are going through major changes.  Commercial piloting is one of them.  To effectively adapt and directly address how this pervasive technology bombardment is impacting cognition in the piloting profession requires fresh thinking.  Having flown airplanes for more than 40 years and helped run flight operations for three airlines, I'd like to share my insights about some key ingredients needed for effective aviating in this ever-changing and accelerated environment. Most importantly, I would like to introduce a new element that stands to directly address this, revolutionize pilot training, and greatly enhance safety -  mindfulness and awareness practices for pilots.

Here is what my crystal ball reveals about the future of commercial piloting:

-        Flying on Autopilot: Flying is likely to remain highly automated.

-        Living on Autopilot: The populace from which we will choose our future pilots will comprise of persons who have grown up surrounded by electronic gadgets, are button-pushing multi-taskers constantly juggling between devices, leading lives of constant interruption and distraction, and scattered, limited attention spans.

-        Possible drop in Emotional Intelligence (EQ) levels in the cockpit due to people leading more virtual lives tied increasingly to their device screens, with decreasing levels of actual human emotional connect. (EQ: noun - the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.) Exacerbated by the fact that most airline pilots do not go to a regular office and hence do not develop long-term human connections with the pilots they fly with. Hence CRM issues will likely have to be addressed to a greater degree.

-        Pilot shortage: An acute shortage of qualified pilots, and even more so, of wise aviators, due to continued growth, steady in some parts of the world - USA 3.5% (IATA Jan 2016 Y-O-Y), frenetic in others - India 26%, China 23% (IATA Jan 2016 Y-O-Y).

-        Lowered cockpit experience levels: Upgrades to Captain at a younger age, and in many cases, the legal minimum, qualifications and experience. It will not be uncommon to have 23-year-old Captains paired with 19-year-old F/Os in many cockpits around the world.

-        Degradation of pilot handling skills due to greater use of automation, greying “stick-and-rudder” pilots fading away, ever-reducing “raw data, automatics off” flying, coupled with low cockpit experience levels.

In line operations, it is further observed that commercial pilots are exposed to:

1.       Varying levels of professionalism and experience in the cockpit.

2.       On-the-job stress, occasionally extreme, and occasionally with rapid onset/startle.

3.       Stress from personal life brought into the cockpit which may impact emotional stability and/or safety.

4.       Commercial time and financial pressures leading to rushing and stress.

5.       Distractions and interruptions.

6.       Lowered attention levels, even boredom, mainly in the extended cruise phase.

7.       Fatigue, sometimes coupled with circadian rhythm mismatch, leading to a reduction in attention and awareness.

8.       Stress from the continuous requirement for proficiency checking and medical fitness.

9.       Airline culture, sometimes negative, sometimes confrontational – leading the pilot to be in a stressful mental state for operations.

10.     Strong hierarchical/power distance factors still existent in some societies, with a corresponding reduction in First Officer advocacy and assertiveness.

If we look at this partial list above, even assuming well-trained and experienced professionals, there are several factors that could lead to the pilot being in a less-than-optimal state of peak performance during flight operations. These stressors are well researched, are discussed and disseminated (albeit with varying degrees of effectiveness between operators), and good professional aviators learn to develop strategies to effectively counter them so that an acceptable level of safety is maintained while on duty.

While current safety data show Loss of Control – Inflight (LOC-I), CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain), Runway Excursions and incorrect Go Arounds as specific problem areas, poor Captaincy/Leadership, Airmanship, Situational Awareness, and Problem Solving and Decision Making seem to be common threads weaving themselves through accident and incident reports from across the world, with insufficient emotional resiliency now also coming onto the radar.

When we holistically look at all these factors, and include the critical element that tomorrow’s commercial cockpits will likely be manned by young, relatively inexperienced, more emotionally isolated, and easily distracted pilots, it becomes imperative, if we are to prevent a further drop in safety levels, that each step of the process be carefully and thoughtfully optimized:

1.       Pilot selection – aptitude, attitude, emotional stability, resilience, and maturity - possessing “wisdom beyond her/his years”.

2.       Competency based pilot training – a solid basic grounding, enhanced as the pilot progresses by what the safety data and evidence is directing, whether greater focus on handling skills, practicing grey scenarios to fine-tune “big picture” awareness and airmanship leading to sound decision-making, or other evolving shortcomings as they become evident in the future.

3.       Organizational professionalism – of a high standard, without compromise, always. Particularly important during high-growth phases when, in the rush to produce the “numbers” so as to avoid having aircraft out of revenue service due to a shortage of pilots, quality slips.

4.       Efficient safety trends monitoring – and a constant loop to correlate this operational data with data gathered in the training world so as to effectively mold training and operational procedures.

5.       Incorporation of new technology – in airplane design, cockpit systems and software, and training methodology and software, to enhance safety and to back up human shortcomings in the evolving man-machine interface and in the environment in which we operate.

6.       Agility of Regulators worldwide – to keep up with evolving trends and embrace and champion effective change to enhance safety and efficiency.

I propose one other element which has so far not been formally or explicitly introduced as part of a pilot’s “tool kit” – a skill that can be trained – and which has immense potential to form the ground from which s/he operates.  This skill gives him a centered, calm, very aware space from which piloting happens and which leads to aviating from a highly-attuned oneness with the airplane and its environment. The result is a much higher level of professionalism and airmanship overall, heightened awareness of the “big picture,” higher EQ levels, and skillful decision-making. This training and practice will be even more critically required given the factors that will prevail in tomorrow’s cockpits.

I propose the introduction of Awareness or Mindfulness Training for pilots.

One commonly accepted definition of this, by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn:

“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, as if your life depended on it.” Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

Though that may sound like a simple statement, each element of it requires deep, deliberate, and thoughtful reflection to grasp its depth and profound ability to change how we live, and, in our context, how we fly. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Boston. His practice of yoga and studies with Buddhist teachers led him to integrate their teachings with those of science. He developed the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) program and has been teaching mindfulness since 1979. While the scientific studies are ongoing, since that time, sufficient evidence exists on the physical and mental health benefits of living mindfully. It is helping people cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness, and in enhancing awareness of whatever is actually happening in the moment, fully present and fully seeing and feeling it exactly as it is, without it being seen through the lens (generally unconsciously) of past association, particularly of it being good or bad.

Kabat-Zinn’s and others’ work, along with the increasing scientific evidence, has inspired countless programs to introduce mindfulness training in schools, in prisons, hospitals, veterans’ centers, several corporations (Google, Accenture, General Mills, Aetna Healthcare, Intel, and more), firefighters, first responders and police departments, and the Navy SEALS, among others. In fact, it was reportedly one of the hottest topics at the 2015 World Economic Forum at Davos.

One long-time scientific researcher on the subject is Prof. Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center in Madison. His findings show that long-term meditators have increased activity and grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of the brain—the area responsible for higher order thinking, such as judgment, decision-making, and discernment (translated as Captaincy and Airmanship in our language), as well as pro-social behavior, like empathy, compassion, and kindness (or a higher order of EQ and CRM in aircraft operations).

Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University specializing in the mind-body connection.  She writes:

“Over the past decade, researchers have found that if you practice focusing attention on your breath, the brain will restructure itself to make concentration easier. If you practice calm acceptance during meditation, you will develop a brain that is more resilient to stress. And if you meditate while cultivating feelings of love and compassion, your brain will develop in such a way that you spontaneously feel more connected to others. New research shows that meditation can help you improve your ability to concentrate in two ways. First, it can make you better at focusing on something specific while ignoring distractions. Second, it can make you more capable of noticing what is happening around you, giving you a fuller perspective on the present moment.”

If you were to search for “Mindfulness” you would get hundreds of hits. Here is a link to one recent research finding (Feb 28, 2017) from the US NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), Frontiers in System Neuroscience Journal:

and a link to a short YouTube video of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn explaining it in his own words:

Mindfulness training involves guiding participants in specific meditation practices to help them ground themselves in the present moment, fully here, aware, undistracted, and calm, through paying attention to breathing and bodily sensations. As pilots, we can see it as a means of helping us fine-tune all our sensory “antennae,” leading to heightened levels of contact with our internal and external states, an “in- touchness” that allows us to operate at higher levels of professionalism, of being one with our machine and our flying environment, leading towards mastery as aviators.

Here are some quotes to help you understand how this translates to true pilotage, where aviators go beyond just the pure mechanics of flight, transcending what we ordinarily do into acts of beauty, art and true professionalism:

“At the controls of a small, high-performance aircraft day in and day out, you reach a point of oneness with the plane. Some people would call that the Zen of flying, but that's too deep for me. You're just a part of the plane, not separate from it, as if you are the brain and it is the body, doing some things you don't have to think about, like breathing, and other things that are converted from thought to action in an instant.”

John Glenn, United States Marine Corps aviator, engineer, test pilot, astronaut, and United States Senator

“Ordinary people focus outwardly; warriors train inwardly, making their inner world the project and the outer world the by-product. The warrior realizes that struggling against the circumstances of life is useless—the battlefield will present what it may. Rather than aiming to change their life, the warrior trains to change his or her mind—relaxing and opening to accept and move with what is. Once the dogfighting skills were there, this is what the F-15 was all about: operating without expectations or control in a three-dimensional realm ruled by chaos, impermanence and death.”

Mark J. Williams

“Although I have flown hundreds of times, probably with a hundred pilots, I have never experienced that sense of the poetry of motion which [Gustav] Hamel imparted to those who were privileged to fly with him. It was like the most perfect skater on the rink, but the skating was through three dimensions, and all the curves and changes were faultless …. Circling downwards so gently, so quietly, so smoothly, in such true harmony with the element in which he moved, that one would have believed that one wing-tip was fastened to a pivot. As for the grim force of gravity, it was his slave. In all his flying there was no sense of struggle with difficulties, or effort at a complicated feat; everything happened as if it could never have happened in any other way. It seemed as easy as pouring water out of a jug.”

Sir Winston Churchill

Beyond the grace of aviating thus – passengers can sense it – but concurrent with it, we can imagine the safety benefits that could accrue to aviation if pilots could be trained to operate from such a state of oneness and awareness that, as John Glenn puts it, “You're just a part of the plane, not separate from it, as if you are the brain and it is the body.” While fully acknowledging that “time in seat” experience and “grey hair” helps get there, could specific training in awareness be the leap needed to help bridge the safety gap, especially for our young cockpits of tomorrow? I certainly think so.

As a pilot, you have probably had experiences of specific flights, or phases of some flights, when you felt completely one with your airplane and with the environment, when you felt, beyond just your mind – viscerally, totally - in tune with your machine. There is a calm knowing in this space, and any required elements of aircraft handling, captaincy or decision-making when in “The Zone” or “In the Flow” are perfect, effortless, exactly appropriate to the situation at hand, infused with wisdom, and “beyond the realm.” We seem to be in a state of grace. The mechanics of flight are transcended and infused into the realm of art and beauty. The result is pilotage performed at the level of mastery.

Speaking for myself as a long-time pilot and meditator, I can unequivocally state that when aviating while aware and in-tune, there is a palpable quality of aliveness and awareness of the “big picture” infusing my actions while operating. Whether it is the technical aspects of flying, doing a landing under difficult conditions, or even appreciating the beauty of a stunning sunset from our very privileged perch up high, there is a oneness with my aircraft and the medium in which I fly, with appropriate actions and decision-making happening almost viscerally, guided by a deeper wisdom. And for those of you flying long-haul and feeling the boredom and drudgery of it, operating from this state infuses a freshness in the mundane -  you see more, hear more, feel more - so that even the thousandth flight seems like your very first.

At the other end of the spectrum, here is an example of a clear lack of mindfulness in flight operations, and you may be able to relate – How many times have you done a pre-flight walkaround and been zoned out for some of it? Let’s take an example. You’ve checked the nose wheel area and moved to the fan cowl of No. 2 engine when you start thinking– “I have to pick Mike up from school after we land. With this weather I think we’re going to be late. Maybe I should call Jill and have her pick him up. Oops, she said she’s going to be in an important meeting till late today. Oh-oh, this is bad. What do I do now? Maybe I can call Mom to help out, but given her reaction the last time she had to do this I hesitate to ask her. Who else can I call?” As your stress levels rise this internal conversation continues as you keep walking. While you have been physically walking around your aircraft and “looking” at the various parts required – the No.2 engine, the right leading edge, the fuel cap, the underside of the wing, the right wing tip - you have absorbed very little of the true state of your machine in this “mind somewhere else, absorbed in thoughts” state. While you may even have physically looked at a component, you did not “see” its actual true state, and you just gazed through and past it. And before you know it, your zoned-out walkaround has ended. It is possible that the fuel cap was not secured closed, and you have completely missed that, even though you looked right at it. It goes without saying that this lack of being fully in the present moment, focused and undistracted, can have negative safety outcomes.

It is understood that there may be some resistance to the idea of mindfulness or awareness training if it is felt that it is a religious practice or alien to one’s beliefs. However, while the origins of mindfulness meditation practices do have their roots largely in the Buddhist tradition, our interest should lie in the fact that scientific evidence points to its efficacy, and it is taught and practiced in a secular manner which does not contradict any person’s personal beliefs. What’s important is to see that it is a practice that is effective in helping us reside in, and so approach whatever we do, from a calmer, more focused and balanced place, all of which greatly enhances situational awareness, communication and teamwork, and leadership and decision-making, especially under stressful situations.

Through mindfulness and awareness training and practice as a pilot, the aim would be to cultivate a mental and emotional state that would bring you on duty, and help you remain during operations, in a condition which is:

-        More situationally aware, able to absorb inputs from your environment more effectively.

-        Calm, focused, and undistracted, even in stressful situations, thus putting you “ahead of the curve” and not startled or caught unawares, greatly enhancing both Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring functions.

-        Clearly allowing you to discern between calm and appropriately prioritized multi-tasking, versus scattered action.

-        Able in a finer way to detect internal signs of fatigue or sub-optimal performance and so take corrective action.

-        More emotionally resilient and able to bounce back from upsets and stress.

-        Able to skillfully discern the difference between using past experience and knowledge wisely and applying it appropriately to the task at hand, while not getting caught in negative thoughts or emotions.

-        More empathetic and attuned, on a human level, with your crew, greatly enhancing teamwork, communication, and leadership.

As with mastery in any activity – whether flying or playing a sport or a musical instrument – the depth and effectiveness of our ability to be present and in-touch increases with practice. The great benefit of specifically practicing being present in the moment is that it enriches everything we do as it forms the very ground from which we operate. There is a vibrancy and freshness to life, we see things anew, the perceived dullness of a repetitive task is replaced by doing it as if for the very first time. While nothing externally may have changed, the internal state from which all is perceived is fresh and not encumbered by past value judgments, allowing us to see things as they are, not clouded by unconscious associations from our history, thus propelling us to take appropriate actions emanating from our full richness as human beings, and which are exactly right for the situation at hand.

And let's get one thing straight. There's a big difference between a pilot and an aviator. One is a technician; the other is an artist in love with flight.

E. B. Jeppesen

"You can't watch yourself fly. But you know when you're in sync with the machine, so plugged into its instruments and controls that your mind and your hand become the heart of its operating system. You can make that airplane talk, and like a good horse, the machine knows when it's in competent hands. You know what you can get away with. And you can only be wrong once."

-- Chuck Yeager

These statements have always been relevant for pilots, and take on even more urgency in this age of highly automated flight and distracted living. The challenges we will find in future cockpits are clear. The journey to continually enhance professional and safety standards for pilots must continue. Mindfulness training for pilots can be an excellent practice from which the aviators of tomorrow can truly soar - while remaining firmly grounded.

Capt. Zaheer is Principal at Inner Compass Advisors, an aviation operations consultancy. In over 40 years of flying in the airline, corporate and military sectors, he has logged over 15000 hours on 28 different aircraft types ranging from tail-draggers to supersonic fighters, and corporate jets to widebodies. Among other leadership roles, he has served as Vice President Flight Operations and Vice President Special Projects at IndiGo, India’s largest airline. He has been practicing meditation and mindfulness for over ten years.

For more information about customized mindfulness courses for pilots, use the form under the "Contact" tab or email   


A New Type of Leadership for the New Year

“If you can consciously lead with the combined intelligence of your heart, your mind, and your gut, your leadership will be clearly focused, balanced, empathetic, and wise.”

I believe in these words.  I wrote them and they were in fact posted on the Training Center wall of my last company. Each member of the senior leadership team was invited to pen a quote that reflected their beliefs on leadership (not a borrowed quote, but their own), and these were all put up, along with that leader’s photograph, in large letters on the walls. This both reflected the ethos of the company for everyone who walked by, not just in bland “Vision, Mission, Values” statements, but in the personal words of leaders they interacted with often, and constantly reminded each of us of the principles we had committed to lead by. That kept us honest.

It was an unusual place because, driven from the President down, this was the kind of leadership that took place on a daily basis.  This kind of human and caring environment does actually work in the business world.  It can successfully co-exist with the cold realm of numbers and targets.  In fact, in my opinion, it was one of the key reasons that this company skyrocketed to the number one spot in its field in the country in a very short period of time, and was voted one of the best companies to work for in India for eight consecutive years in our 10-year existence at that time (by the Best Place to Work Institute).

We didn’t use the term Management, we used Leadership. We felt that was more pro-active, and it was very important in selecting our future leaders that they first be good human beings, with qualities of heart, along with the requisite domain expertise.

“If you can consciously lead with the combined intelligence of your heart, your mind, and your gut, your leadership will be clearly focused, balanced, empathetic, and wise.”

What this sentence implies is that we possess valid intelligence in more than just our minds, and the sentence deliberately starts with the intelligence of our hearts. Without this base grounding in the heart, we may achieve short-term targets, but sooner rather than later we will lose our people, if not physically, then at the least their passion and creativity. In my opinion, this is the secret sauce, the lack of which is leading to the abysmal engagement scores we are seeing.

Most organizations today have forgotten the essence of leadership, and much of it has devolved into cold, heartless management purely focused on delivering results. Since we are human, not robots or automatons, what intrinsically motivates and drives us is humanity – basic understanding, caring and kindness towards us as human beings. This hasn’t changed over thousands of years.

Sadly, business schools have long ago stopped teaching all subjects related to this, so we are putting out into the business world millions adept at the numbers game but untrained in the human traits that underpin them. They’re just supposed to know that stuff. Sadly, many of us don’t, or it’s not valued at work.

Here are the current numbers -  almost 70% of the US workforce is disengaged at work (Gallup, 2015 numbers). In other words, the vast majority of the average company’s workforce is unenthusiastic, unproductive, not creative, not growing, not aligned, and not contributing effectively towards the company’s vision or goals. Gallup also estimates that this is costing the US economy over $500 billion in lost productivity yearly. That’s truly shocking.

How can this possibly be acceptable to any leader? What have we come to? Why? And why have these poor engagement numbers remained largely unchanged for years?

I realize that there is a lot of research and jargon on leadership available. My contribution here is based more on my experiences of being both a follower and a leader over a few decades.

Here are some things that have helped me over the years, both for my personal growth and for my empathy as a leader:

-          Take your job seriously. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

-          Take risks. Make mistakes. Encourage these in others. When you or others fail, be kind, encourage and mentor (particularly be kind to yourself first, then to others). Being harsh and critical may sometimes show short-term gains, but those reactions cannot lead to lasting improvement, which comes with compassionate holding.

-          To resolve a problem, meet people face-to-face. If absolutely not possible, talk to them on the phone. Just using e-mails or texts without the other steps first is unacceptable; and when listening to others, really listen deeply with your heart, gut and mind. Gently look the person in the eye. Breathe. Don't be occupied formulating your response..

-          Slow down. Put away your device. Don’t multi-task. Focus on one thing.

-          Eat slowly, taste deeply, feel texture and aroma. Just eat. Put your device away.

-          Really look at things. With fresh eyes. As if for the first time. Even if you’ve seen exactly that person or item thousands of times before. Absorb them with your mind, heart and body right now, not just an idea or concept of them from your past.

-          Travel if you can. Get out of your comfort zone. You’ll realize that people of all ethnicities and colors, from all corners of the world, largely want the same basic peace and happiness for themselves and their children that you do, in spite of the constant negative drumbeat of instant media bombardment. The overwhelming majority of us are more similar than dissimilar.

-          Meditate daily. Connect with something deeper in yourself.

-          Try to go beyond stuff/possessions/things. You’ll realize sooner or later that even with all the toys in the world, the void of unfulfillment remains till you connect with something deeper and more meaningful. This does not involve much money.

-          Play with children. If you can’t find them, be a child yourself sometimes! Loosen up.

-          Get a pet.

-          Try and forgive people. Or, as the Dalai Lama said, “Try to help people. If you can’t do that, at least don’t hurt them.”

We may be reaching a tipping point in the business world. At least I hope so, as it pains me to see, year after year, the level of disengagement in workplaces where most of us will spend the bulk of our adult lives. It is obvious that this cannot benefit us, either individually, or as societies.

If you are a leader, I ask you, with all my heart, please try and open yours. Be kind to yourself as you do, for events will make you retract back into your shell, and you will have to courageously tiptoe out again and again till your soul will unflinchingly verify that you are on the right path. Great things will follow! Despite your skepticism that this simply cannot work in your unique situation, you may be pleasantly surprised at the results. Remember the snowball rolling down the hill.

Here is a resolution you may wish to make, not just for the New Year, but for your future as a truly inspiring leader, where the results will show greater retention, less sick reports, an enthusiastic team continually coming up with creative cutting-edge ideas, greater productivity, greater profits, and an enervating buzz and many smiles that you have personally created:

“In whatever ways I can, at my workplace and with my team, amidst the pressure of delivering results, may I remember always that I can be kinder, more forgiving, and more human.”

Saleem Zaheer, Principal, Inner Compass Advisors