How To Train Your Mind To Dramatically Improve Your Leadership

Interview with Jacqueline Carter, an expert in helping organizations manage change and achieve their desired goals and results.

In my work as a corporate director, then as a therapist and executive coach working with emerging and seasoned leaders, I’ve found one thing to be true: One cannot effectively and powerfully lead an organization if one can’t lead his or her own life. It’s simply not possible.

To learn more about how we can train our minds to lead more powerfully and successfully, both in our personal and professional lives, I caught up recently with Jacqueline Carter, an expert in helping organizations manage change and achieve their desired goals and results.

With over 20 years of consulting and management experience, Carter is passionate about helping individuals and organizations realize their potential through training the mind. She is a Partner with Potential Project International and Director of Potential Project in North America. Her clients include Cisco, Google, American Express, Royal Bank of Canada, and Suncor to name a few. The Potential Project is a global leader in providing organizational effectiveness solutions based on training the mind. Their mission is to enhance individual and organizational performance, resilience and creativity.

Carter is the co-author with Rasmus Hougaard of The Mind of the Leader – How to Lead Yourself, Your People and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results and One Second Ahead: Enhancing Performance at Work with Mindfulness.

Based on extensive research, including assessments of more than 35,000 leaders and interviews with 250 C-level executives, The Mind of the Leader reveals how leaders can lead themselves, their people, and their organizations by training their minds.

Here’s what Carter shares about the mind of a leader and how to strengthen it:

Kathy Caprino: Why start with your mind to improve your leadership?

Jacqueline Carter: We conducted a two-year research study, to find the strategies for great leadership in the 21st century. We interviewed 250 C-suite executives from Microsoft, Google, McKinsey, LEGO and more, assessed 35,000 leaders and trawled through thousands of studies on leadership. One of our key findings was that leadership starts with yourself. More specifically, it starts in your mind.

By understanding how your mind works, you can lead yourself effectively. By understanding and leading yourself effectively, you can understand others and be able to lead them more effectively. And by understanding and leading others more effectively, you can understand and lead your organization more effectively—and by “more effectively,” we mean in a way that’s going to tap into your own and your people’s intrinsic motivations and sense of purpose.

If you’re able to do that — and we have witnessed that with practice and persistence, anyone can — you’ll have a more engaged and productive workforce. And perhaps more importantly, you’ll be part of creating more happiness, stronger human connectedness, and better social cohesion within and beyond your organization.

Caprino: What are the concrete, measurable benefits that you’ve observed, for having a more engaged and productive workforce? Why should leaders care?

Carter: Marriott stands out as an organization that has a strong focus on their people. Starting with their founders, J.W. and Alice Marriott, they have had one overarching business philosophy: “If we take care of our people, they will take care of our guests and business will take care of itself.” Even now with over 700,000 employees worldwide, they embed a strong orientation of taking care of employees into their leadership philosophy. And it seems to be effective. Their latest internal survey showed that 83% of employees find their leaders engaging and relevant. This is in stark contrast to the latest gallop poll survey’s indicating only 13% of workers are engaged and 24% are actively disengaged.

Caprino: What are the core “mind” qualities you’ve found that leaders need to train, and why?

Carter:  Our research found that three key mental qualities stand out in great leaders: mindfulness, selflessness and compassion.

  • Mindfulness provides leaders with a stellar focus on the task at hand enabling high productivity. But equally, it provides an ability to be truly present with people, clients and stakeholders. Presence in leadership creates better connectedness and loyalty and enables the qualities of selflessness and compassion.
  • Selflessness is the opposite of ego-centeredness. A selfless leader is more concerned with the interest and needs of his or her people, organization and society at large, than of his or her own needs and desires. Selflessness increases engagement and creativity.
  • A compassionate leader has the well-being and happiness of his or her people in mind and always looks for ways of improving it. People with compassionate leaders know that they have their back and as a result, trust and cohesion thrive.

In addition to our own research, a growing body of scientific evidence corroborates that these three qualities make for leadership that enables better organizational performance, health, social cohesion, and trust.

Caprino: How does the training actually work from a scientific perspective?

Carter: Over the past two decades, neuroscientists have discovered that our brain is plastic – it changes constantly throughout our lifetime based on how we use it. This is called neuroplasticity and what it means is that we can train mental qualities just like we train physical qualities – by going to the gym.

If we want to become a more mindful, selfless and compassionate leader there are specific “mental training” exercises that we can do to rewire our brain to enable these to be more of our default way of working and leading. In the “mindfulness training gym” we train our mind to be more focused and aware. In the “selfless training gym” we train our mind to be more humble and grateful. In the “compassion training gym” we train our mind to be of greater benefit to ourselves and others.

Caprino: What else can we do to bring these core qualities into our day-to-day leadership?

Carter: The starting point for bringing these qualities into your day to day leadership is to consider your motivation. Why do you think these would be of value for you? Second, it is important to set intentions about how you want to bring these into your leadership and to visualize what it would look like to be an MSC leader. As part of this it is valuable to consider how you will assess your progress. Third, it is helpful to share your intentions with others and invite them to support you on your journey.

Caprino: Do you have any examples of what these qualities look like in action?

Carter: A mindful leader is present with people. They refrain from multitasking and do not check their phone when speaking with you. They are able to cut through the clutter of daily challenges and have mental space for creative thinking.

A selfless leader is one who praises the team for successes and takes responsibility for setbacks. They speak in terms of “we,” “you” and “us” as opposed to “I,” “me” and “mine.” They notice the contributions of people in their organizations and take time to express gratitude.

A compassionate leader is one who seeks to be of benefit to others. They ask questions like “What can I do to help you today?” They also do not hold back from giving tough feedback towards helping someone else realize more of their potential. They are also willing to make tough but wise decisions about people and are sure to execute with extreme care and kindness.

Caprino: In my work with thousands of female leaders over the years, I’ve seen that one of the deep challenges professional women face is that they tend to be overly “selfless” and too other-focused. They’ve been trained by society and culture (and the ecosystems they work in) to underplay their own accomplishments. Assertive women also share that they are often punished and seen as being less competent or valuable because of their assertiveness  Thus, I’ve seen that they tend to go too far to the spectrum of “we” vs. “I.” What does your research show in terms of the difference between men and women in their leadership approach?

Carter:  Although in the study had a large percentage of women in lower levels of leadership, we did have fewer women at the senior executive levels (given the lower overall representation of women in these roles) where we had a lot of the conversations regarding selflessness.

The key thing we found, and this was true for men and women (although it came up more for women), was the need for a healthy sense of self and strong self-confidence combined with an orientation to be of service to others. For the senior female executives we spoke with, having a strong sense of self meant that they took care of themselves, they sat at the table, and when they were treated with disrespect (and we did hear stories of that) that they had the confidence to speak up and not take it personally.

 So our message in the book is that selflessness does not mean being a doormat and letting people walk all over you. Selflessness is about not letting our natural egoistic tendencies to get in the way of us rising up to the challenges of being an effective leader. And to do it successfully, we need to combine it with confidence.

Caprino: Beyond these qualities, is there anything else that leaders should embrace to expand their positive influence and impact?

Carter: An overarching theme that came out of our research was a global trend towards creating more human leadership and people-centered cultures. As human beings, we are all driven by basic needs for meaning, happiness, human connectedness, and a desire to contribute positively to society. That’s true whether we’re at home, out in the world, or at work.

But it’s one thing to realize this and another to act on it. Speaking to our people’s intrinsic motivation calls for leadership and organizations that cater to these desires. It’s something that forward-thinking organizations and leaders are increasingly realizing and addressing.

The most important pathway to create a people-centered culture is to consider how putting people at the center of your strategy would impact leadership development programs, investment in your people, operational policies and procedures, organizational structures and how you view your vision, mission and corporate values.

A great example of this is Barry-Wehmiller, a $3 billion global supplier of manufacturing technology and solutions. They measure success by “the way we touch the lives of people” and strive to create “truly human leadership” and create a culture where everybody matters. This is something we hope all leaders will be inspired to consider for themselves and their organizations.


To learn more, visit The Mind of the Leader.


Originally published at Forbes