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