5 Mantras To Master To Improve Your Leadership
This article originally appeared in Forbes.
Humans have chanted mantras for centuries, intending to invoke peace of mind, intuition, and other benefits. A mantra is simply a word, phrase, or sound that gets repeated as a way to focus the body and mind on the present, to what’s right in front of us. For leaders, the use of mantras to guide our minds at work isn’t a widely adopted practice, but it should be. Mantras can be a powerful tool for quieting the external and internal busyness that surrounds us so that our best intentions can emerge and be acted on.
In our recently published book, Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way (Harvard Business Review Press, January 2022), we share mantras to help leaders practice and master a wise, compassionate leadership style. The mantras are a distillation from our research for the book, including over one million data points collected from executives and their teams at more than 500 companies around the world.
The mantras are designed to be easy to remember and apply. But keep in mind, the idea of mantras is that they are more than just words. They are concepts to be trained so they become habitual to how we lead. The mantras may seem deceptively simple and make intuitive sense, but they require testing, reflection, and repetition to embody. There is a deeper level to each of them that you will only realize when you start to explore and practice them in your day-to-day leadership. Here are five to start with:
Busyness Kills Your Heart
We’re all busy juggling many priorities. In today’s culture, being busy is a badge of honor, and this drive for action can often be very helpful. It enables us to get things done, overcome procrastination, and in a number of situations, it can enhance our performance. But a constant experience of being busy means our bodies are never at rest. We are “always on” and rarely take the time to slow down. Most critically, we can deprioritize time for supporting and developing others in favor of meeting deadlines and getting one more thing done.
When we stop confusing an active mind with a productive mind and can recognize the addiction of busyness, we create space. And, into that space flows the possibility of stronger connections with others. Use this mantra to break the cycle of busyness and enable your compassionate nature to come to the forefront.
Connect with Empathy, Lead with Compassion
Empathy is important. A leader without empathy is like an engine without a spark plug — it simply won’t engage. But in leadership, empathy has its downsides. We can have empathetic burnout or care so much that we avoid taking necessary action. Compassion is empathy plus action, and it enables us to connect with others, while also doing the necessary hard things that leadership requires.
When we can take a mental and emotional step away from a situation, and ask the person in front of us the simple question “what do you need?” to better inform how we can help, we are moving towards compassion. Use this mantra to acknowledge a problem, define the next best steps, and avoid the higher risk of leader burnout that comes with employing empathy alone. (According to our research, leaders with an empathy preference have a 12% increased risk of burnout on average compared to their more compassionate counterparts.)
Your Oxygen Mask First
To be a wise and compassionate leader, it is imperative that we are up to the task; that we have the courage and strength to do hard things in a human way. Only when we show wisdom and compassion towards ourselves, can we truly show it towards others. But so many senior leaders are plagued by self-criticism and doubt, and they often occupy a lonely spot where the buck stops with them.
When we can silence the inner critic and be a bit kinder to ourselves rather than harshly self-critical, we build the courage and stamina we need for the tough job of leading others. Use this mantra to remember that self-care is at the heart of being a good leader to others. Putting our own oxygen mask on first enables us to pause, take a breath, and lead in ways that best serve our teams.
Courage Over Comfort
As human beings, we’re hardwired to embrace certainty and safety and to avoid danger and discomfort. In fact, sometimes we’ll do nearly everything we can to convince ourselves that staying in our comfort zone is the best thing to do. But leadership means making hard decisions that others will disagree with and may even cause conflict. This is where courage comes in.
When we open ourselves up to difficult emotions – our own or others – instead of running away from them, the chance for human connection blossoms. Use this mantra to find the inner courage to overcome fears about an uncomfortable interaction or the delivery of negative news and you will create a space for more open discussion, greater accountability, and higher performance.
Clarity Is Kindness
As leaders, we need to be transparent. If we are not, people won’t know where we stand and what awaits them. But if we are clear and open, it helps to create a culture of transparency that fosters a greater sense of psychological safety. Transparency means getting ideas and thoughts out in the open—to make the invisible visible. We don’t hold back important information out of fear of how it will be received or how we will be perceived.
When we strip away the power that often comes with knowledge and even the playing field, people know where they stand and what comes next, and can plot their course in life. Use this mantra to remind yourself to be open and honest about what is on your mind and in your heart.
To inspire even greater introspection and contemplation of your leadership style and habits, we’ve created companion worksheets for three of the mantras shared above. These worksheets will help you to dive deeper into the mantra, find ways to practice it on a daily basis and fortify the wise compassionate leader within you.