The 3 virtues of great leadership

Mindfulness, selflessness and compassion are all essential - and they can all be learned.

by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter
Last Updated: 11 Apr 2018

Traditionally, workplace initiatives designed to increase engagement and productivity are focused on external satisfaction— things like bonuses, raises and flexi-time. All of these can be great, but they’re short-term solutions. They work for a little while, but the effects wear off as people begin to take the perks for granted.

Only internal drivers — such as meaningful engagement, connectedness, and feeling valued — can engage employees on the deeper level needed for long-term commitment and productivity. 

If we as leaders want to cultivate truly thriving organisations, we need to understand what really matters to human beings. We all want to be happy. We all want to live meaningful lives and contribute to the well-being of others. People leaving the office every day with a sense of fulfillment will want to come back, focus on tough projects, and work hard.  

So how do you facilitate meaning, connectedness, and true happiness for the people you lead? Or, more specifcally, what qualities of mind does a leader need to develop to be better at leading this changing workforce?

Based on surveys and assessments of tens of thousands of leaders, we have found that three mental qualities stand out as being critical for increasing engagement, happiness and productivity: mindfulness (M), selfessness (S), and compassion (C). They are foundational qualities of great leadership that we call MSC Leadership, and our experience shows that all three can be learned, practiced, and enhanced. 


Mindfulness refers to both a practice and a state of mind. It is about generating greater mental effectiveness, so that you can realise more of your potential on both a professional and a personal level. 

Mindfulness training techniques have been around for thousands of years and involve paying attention, in the present moment, with a calm, focused, and clear mind.  You learn to hold your focus on what you choose, whether it’s this page, an email, a meeting, or the people you are with.

Once you begin applying mindfulness to your leadership, you’ll see that as your mindfulness increases, your perception of ‘self’ starts to change. More specifically, a stronger sense of selfless confidence arises, helping you develop the second quality of MSC leadership. 


Selflessness is the wisdom of getting out of your own way, the way of your people, and the way of your organisation to unleash the natural flow of energy that people bring to their work. Selflessness combines strong self-confidence with a humble intention to be of service.

Arne Sorenson, CEO of the hotel chain Marriott, described his role as being a function of service to the company’s 400,000 employees. The driving business philosophy of Marriott is to take care of their employees, so that their employees take care of their guests. That way, business takes care of itself. Arne’s role is not one of power but one of service.

Many of the leaders we’ve talked to worry that selflessness will make them pushovers. But it’s not that simple. A leader’s selflessness has to be a combination of selflessness and self-confidence. If you have selflessness without self-confidence, you will indeed be a pushover.

As we let go of our sense of self-importance, we naturally begin attending more to other people: we show more interest in them and offer more care. In this way, compassion arises as a natural outgrowth of selflessness. 


Compassion is the quality of having positive intentions for others. It’s the ability to understand others’ perspectives and use that as a catalyst for supportive action.

Compassion also requires courage and strength to sometimes have difficult conversations or make tough decisions.

Chris Schmidt, CEO of the US accounting firm Moss Adams, puts it this way ‘I think being compassionate is part of maturing as a leader,’ Chris explained.

‘I always look for the best in people. But when you have to lay off a person, that’s always difficult. I give them many, many opportunities to demonstrate their value. And then, if and when the time comes, I balance the human side with the factual, business-case side. I make it clear that I do feel for that individual, but I keep it within the context of the business decision.’

This balanced approach helps both himself and the other person to maintain mutual respect and move on in the best possible way. 

The ideal is the successful combination of compassion, wisdom and benevolent leadership. We act compassionately while closely observing the impact of our actions. The world’s most admired companies are often operating in this space, balancing compassion with a wise focus on the bottom line and strategic goals. 

MSC  Leadership—  Start with Yourself

Leading with mindfulness, selflessness and compassion makes you more human and less leader. It makes you more you and less your title.

Michael Rennie, global leader of Organisation Practice for McKinsey & Company, having spent forty years making organisations and leaders more effective, concluded: ‘A good leader must understand what makes a good life and how to help people find that. A leader’s job is not to provide a paycheck and benefits: it’s about helping people be truly happy and find meaning in their jobs and life. When a leader succeeds with this, it unlocks real performance.’ 

MSC leadership enables this. It will radically transform your own performance, the performance of your people, and that of your organisation. And along the way, you all benefit by becoming happier as you experience better human connections with a stronger sense of meaning and shared purpose.  And it all starts with you.  

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Mind of The Leader by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. Copyright 2018 Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. All rights reserved.

Rasmus Hougaard is Managing Director at leadership training, organisational development and research firm Potential Project; Jacqueline Carter is Partner and Director, North America.

Image credit: Jorisvo/Shutterstock


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