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Let me begin by telling you that what I am sharing in this article comes from my experience as a leader. I am not a researcher or a coach or a psychologist. What I know comes from being an associate at a Wall Street law firm, a senior executive at a Fortune 200 company, the founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization, and a member of a family. What I want to share with you is based on my personal experience as a leader and, most importantly, on my decade of work during which I explored mindful leadership training with thousands of people around the world. During those years, I was amazed to discover some common threads about leadership, and our understanding of it. And it continues to be a privilege for my colleagues and me at the Institute for Mindful Leadership to work with so many organizations seeking excellence in its purest form. 

“Leader” is one of those words that seems to remain undefined, regardless of how many people write about it, or speak about it. We can come up with names of management books or self-help books that purport to make us “great leaders.” Our organizations may have elaborate assessment tools that measure leadership effectiveness. But, what exactly do we mean? Who is a leader? What do we mean when we say someone is a “great leader”?

At its most fundamental level, a leader is someone who influences. He may influence another person’s behavior or choice. She may influence a group’s dynamics or effectiveness. In fact, every person, for better or worse, has an influence every day. We each influence those around us, at work and at home. And we each have an effect on the environment in which we live…for better or worse. It is worth taking a pause here to let that sink in…. each of us has the potential to lead “for better” every day. We also have the potential to lead “for worse” every day.

In our society, we tend to use the word “leader” in an aspirational way. We may want to be a leader in a particular organization, or on a particular topic. Or, perhaps we abdicate our ability to lead by thinking that leadership is only for those with titles, or outgoing personalities, or better opportunities.

But, we all are already influencing so we are already leaders. The question really is, do we influence for better or for worse?? And can we become great leaders by enhancing our ability to influence more often for better, and less often for worse?

A person’s influence, or leadership, is not defined by titles, or even by responsibilities. We have all known people who have a strong effect on a team or in a meeting, even though they are not the most senior, or the one responsible for the outcomes. Sometimes that effect is positive, sometimes it isn’t. And we have all known people with impressive titles who have virtually no positive effect on a team or in a meeting. So if a title or position doesn’t define great leadership, how do we know when we see a great leader? Answer…because leadership is analogous to Justice Stewart’s comment about pornography, we “know it when we see it.” Or, more precisely, in my research with professionals around the world, we know it when we experience it.

For the past several years, in my work at the Institute for Mindful Leadership, I have had the privilege of exploring mindful leadership with professionals around the world. My work has taken me to Fortune 500 companies, healthcare organizations, educators, businesspeople in North America, Europe, Australia and China, and twice to the World Economic Forum. Each time, I invite the groups of professionals-executives, marketers, teachers, engineers, financial advisors, etc-to explore a reflection about leadership excellence. I invite them to explore leadership excellence from their own lived experiences, calling to mind someone who they know, from their own experience, exhibited excellence. Sometimes that person is from their work experience, sometimes from their community and sometimes from their family. What quickly becomes apparent is that we do, indeed, know what great leadership looks like, and perhaps more importantly, feels like.

Time and again, the same words emerge: humble, compassionate, good listener, inspirational, respectful, calm, trustworthy, ethical, effective and courageous. And most often we also recall that our great leader was someone with a good sense of humor and high integrity.

These responses were seemingly unaffected by where the participants lived, or what they did for a living. It didn’t matter if I guided the leadership excellence reflection with NYC teachers or private equity managers or Massachusetts physician leaders. The same words emerged in Davos, Switzerland with leaders from the business world, government and the arts. And again in Tianjin, China and Sydney, Australia with large groups of business professionals.

When we stop and allow ourselves to reflect on the kind of leadership that makes a difference, we know what great leadership is…and what it isn’t. Strikingly absent was “meets objectives.” Those who can do so are managers, and, of course, in order for the organization to survive, it is important that organizational objectives are often met. But that is not enough for great leadership. It is not what engages people, what leads them to seek innovative opportunities or what makes them identify their managers as “great leaders.”

So, if we know what great leaders are, what gets in our way of leading and living with excellence? My colleagues and I at the IML often work with organizations that are dedicated to seeking excellence. They have no shortage of highly educated professionals and yet there is a strong sense that something more is needed to define and find the kind of great leadership that is needed as we move fully into the 21st Century.

More and more, organizations are hearing from their employees, clients, consumers and patients that “checking the box” to make the bottom line numbers is not going to attract talent nor is it going to foster loyalty. Most already understand that greatness is not about short term thinking. That the kind of leadership we need is focused, clear, creative and compassionate. These four fundamentals of leadership excellence are the underpinnings of the Institute’s curricula. I have found that as we teach professionals to strengthen those 4 Fundamentals of Leadership Excellence, they begin to find their ability to make conscious choice that are not only good for the organization but are good for the employees and good for the community. These choices come from the ability to draw on their expertise and experience, while also tapping into their mind’s ability to be present and to listen to their own wisdom and intuition.

In short, they begin to learn how to reconnect with those parts of themselves that are needed to exhibit the characteristics of leadership excellence that we have been discussing. And, have you noticed that these characteristics of leadership excellence are also what we would need to live with excellence?

Fundamentally, we are describing the attributes we aspire to as human beings. We want these attributes in ourselves and in those around us. And, because each of the participants exploring this reflection has experienced this kind of leader, there is an “aha” moment during our workshops and retreats that it is, in fact, possible to aspire to live and lead in this way.

So, what gets in the way? If we know what excellence is, why don’t we model it for our colleagues, our teams and our families?

The answer is often because we are so caught up in just “getting through the day” that we fail to notice how much of the time we are on autopilot. And when we are not actually present for the moments of our lives, we rarely make the kind of conscious decisions that would allow us to embody compassion, humor, integrity, etc. When we are overloaded with responsibilities and complex lives, we drop into autopilot and allow ourselves to be continuously distracted.

Let’s take an example. A middle manager with a family gets up at 6am, helps get the kids ready for school, heads off to a day of constant meetings and calls (he’s not sure if he ate lunch), leaves for home around 7pm to help with homework and household needs, followed by 3 hours on the computer to catch up on emails that he didn’t get to during the day, and then falls into bed after midnight. Sound familiar? Does anyone think this man is bringing his best leadership anywhere-at work or at home? Or is it more likely that he is going through the motions, just trying to survive? The qualities we need to be our best selves are unlikely to arise in this state of being.

There is also another reason. These descriptors of leadership excellence are relational. They require connections and we are beginning to see more and more signs that people are not deeply connected-to themselves, one another or to the big picture. A recent NYTimes article described the effects the mere presence of a cell phone on a table has on conversation. Its presence kept conversation on a light level, the kind of meaningless topics that are unaffected when people dropped onto their phone for a moment or two.

One of the ramifications of the prevalence of “light conversations” was that there was no opportunity to go into meaningful topics, the kind of topics that help us develop compassion, and that help us discern who we are, and what is important to us. These deeper conversations are also those that help us truly understand, and connect with, those around us. (In one research project with students who communicated principally via texts, they found that they were failing to develop a critical life skill, empathy. The good news was when phones were taken away for a series of days, they began to learn empathy as they had opportunities for conversations with one another.)

Training our mind and opening to our wisdom is about creating the kind of work and the organizational environment that will make people want to go the extra mile and that makes them feel proud of the work they are doing, and the role they and their organizations play in the community. It is also the approach to leading in our personal lives. It allows us to more consistently influence those we care about in a way that is aligned with what we most value.

Leadership excellence is about producing and delivering services in ways that exceed what we have today. Mindful leadership is not about being less of a leader. In fact, it invites you to stretch further than you have ever gone before. It is inviting you to use your education and your intuition, and use it alongside the capacities of your mind that you have trained to be focused, clear, creative and compassionate. It is an invitation to find the “win-win-win”-good for the organization, good for its employees and good for the community. Those discoveries and conscious choices that lead to the “win-win-win” are vivid examples of the kind of leadership excellence we need in every organization in the 21st Century.

Our old forms of leadership don’t work. They have often created attitudes of “win at all costs” or “it’s all about me” approaches to work. At its most egregious level, we see headlines of intentional disregard of laws and regulations that pollute our environment and cause injury and death to consumers. We also see a mentality of some leaders who try to actually rationalize the choice to raise the price of a pill from $13.50 to $750 overnight simply because they could!

But you need not go to that level to find the dissatisfaction in our lives. Just look around your workplace or listen to those in your family. We do not need to look far to see people going through the motions or so busy that they really don’t know what they are doing. How many are taking sleeping pills or antidepressants? How many would feel guilty about staying home when they are sick?

The old model of leadership and the old definitions of excellence have left us with an epidemic of employee disengagement and widespread stress related health problems that threaten to bankrupt our health care system.

There is no simple fix. But we need to begin by stopping long enough to see and feel and know what our lives today are about, what our organizations are about, and how we want to be in the world. We already know what leadership excellence is…now we need more leaders with the courage to develop it.