Reading The Mind of the Leader at Book Club @ AGL

Dec 13, 2018 | AgileAus, Feature Articles, Guest Blogs

In November, AgileTODAY was warmly welcomed into Book Club @ AGL — a fortnightly reading group held in AGL’s Melbourne offices. Over the two sessions documented below, the book club discussed The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).

Opening with a startling statistic — 65% of employees would pass up on a payrise to see their leader fired — The Mind of the Leader outlines the key causes of what its authors see as a current leadership crisis. Ultimately, the book proposes that the greatest failure of contemporary organisations is not putting people at their centre of their strategy. The book provides practical tips on how to incorporate mindfulness, selflessness and compassion into your leadership style — doubling as a personal development and strategic leadership text.

Below, we recount just some of the topics of discussion the book ignited at Book Club @ AGL. Spy like a fly on the wall and see what they had to say!

Overcome your action addiction

The average adult spends up to 8 hours a day desiring things they do not have in that moment, a University of Chicago study cited in The Mind of the Leader reveals. The distractions of technology often mean we’re living everywhere but the present.

The Mind of the Leader refers to our fractured attention span as action addiction. As the authors explain:

“Action addiction is characterised by an uncontrollable urge to be doing something and a discomfort with being still. It includes behaviors like constantly checking emails, texts, news feeds, or social media. Action addiction keeps us busy and may help us complete many ‘tasks’, but activity is not the same as productivity.” (57-58)

While reports of a pricey wooden box being sold at a stationery retailer — simply to be used to lock your phone inside — stirred laughter at Book Club @ AGL, we agreed the product was reflective of this widespread action addiction. Further cementing our belief, Hougaard and Carter cite research proving the mere presence of a phone during a conversation, even if left untouched, creates distance between people.

In the book club, we acknowledged that simply ‘switching off’ your phone and email isn’t always feasible in our increasingly connected society. More reasonable tips for living in the present moment were raised in the club — like having separate phones for work and social purposes so you aren’t distracted by information irrelevant to your immediate situation.

As EA Sports General Manager Roy Harvey recounts in The Mind of the Leader, he “has been amazed to discover how many problems solve themselves or become obsolete if we leave them alone for a while.” (135) This gave us comfort and confidence in the idea of not checking our email for a couple of hours to hone in on the task at hand. The world won’t end if we are ‘unplugged’ for a brief period of time! The distractions of technology — which have us “jumping from task to task, reading emails [and] messaging in a flurry of activity” (135) — are proven by the book to be highly detrimental to productivity.

Making a concerted effort to carve out dedicated ‘focus time’ in our professional and personal lives was a key takeaway action item from this reading. We recognised the importance of “refraining from action and to instead pause, clear the mind, and to take only the most important actions.” (135) As Houugard and Carter put it: “It’s more effective to move one big rock every day than a thousand pieces of gravel.” (135)

The magic of mindfulness

There’s no shortage of ‘productivity hacks’ claiming to remedy what The Mind of the Leader dubs action addiction, but one that comes highly recommended by Book Club @ AGL members is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is explained by Hougaard and Carter as mental training that “expand[s] our focus of what’s happening in our mind from moment-to-moment” by encouraging us to “pause in the moment, so we can take more conscious choices and take more deliberation actions.” (33) The book contains numerous step-by-step exercises that induce a state of mindful reflection.

The Mind of the Leader positions mindfulness as “the starting point for self-awareness” (31), as it forces us to concentrate solely on present conditions. This translates into corporate contexts, drawing us away from the negative effects of multitasking. Cultivating greater focus through mindfulness appears crucial, as surveys conducted by Hougaard and Carter indicate 96% of leaders seek an enhanced focus (46).

Book club members praised The Mind of the Leader for lending credibility to leadership theories by backing up statements with solid research. The book’s facts-based case for mindfulness is perhaps the strongest example of this. Its use of anecdotal evidence is equally compelling, with CEOs of companies like Heineken and Marriott attesting to the benefits of mindfulness.

As leaders, mindfulness can give us the self-awareness needed to avoid having an inflated ego. The text explains the downsides of a big ego: “it makes you vulnerable to criticism; it makes you susceptible to manipulation; it narrows your field of vision; and it corrupts your behaviour and causes you to act against your values” (66).

Mindfulness is well known among Book Club @ AGL members; many of whom already engage in the practice and have observed marked improvements in their thinking patterns and productivity levels. The mindset is further encouraged by the Mindfulness Room, a feature of AGL’s new corporate office in Melbourne. It’s a work-free zone with no technology or phones, existing just as a quiet space to take time out for wellbeing.

From “I” to “We”

Having learned to “mindfully lead” (45) ourselves, the discussion shifted to how we may apply this sense of self-awareness in our leadership of others.

The Mind of the Leader promotes selfless leadership, where leaders use mindfulness to gain “the wisdom to develop and grow your people so they can shine and thrive” (127). The book club members expanded upon this definition of selfless leadership —- adding that an effective leader brings everyone along for the ride, gives team members autonomy, and creates a sort of ‘collective ego’ among the team.

These sentiments were supported by research in the text, where a University of Texas study showed “people with higher leadership positions use significantly more first-person plural pronouns like we, as well as second-person pronouns like you and yours” (65). The book club agreed that leaders who spoke of team goals rather than their own goals were far more motivating figures.

However, book club members noted that the text did not account for scenarios where the use of personal pronouns is essential to leadership. When making an apology or in the case of a PR incident, a leader assuming personal responsibility through the pointed use of personal pronouns may restore trust in their leadership, while the use of ‘we’ or ‘you’ could very well be seen as a shirking of blame.

A purely selfless leader is, of course, a somewhat idealistic vision. The book club recognised that today’s corporate culture, which often is based on a ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality, doesn’t always support this type of functioning in a leader.

In any case, we agreed that a greater self-awareness, as promoted in The Mind of the Leader, can only be beneficial to a leader.  We capped off our conversations by determining that organisations must recognise they are a part of our life, not all of our life. A great leader understands that the delivery of a project shouldn’t compromise employees’ work/life balance.

The strategies laid out in The Mind of Leader give readers the awareness to prioritise what’s important to them, helping to trigger broader organisational movements that prioritise employees’ wellbeing. As the book club concluded, gaining perspective and engaging in mindful leadership must be a joint effort between ourselves and our organisations, as change cannot occur without attitudinal shifts on all levels of the leadership hierarchy.

1. “What People Desire, Feel Conflicted About and Try to Resist in Everyday Life.” W. Hoffmann, K.D. Vohs and R.F. Baumeister, Psychological Science (Vol 23, No. 6, 2012).

2. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. Sherry Turkle (Basic Books, 2011).

3. The Mind of the Leader cites research which shows multitasking lowers job satisfaction, damages personal relationships, adversely impacts memory, and negatively affects health. The research comes from “The Dark Side of Information: Overload, Anxiety and Other Paradoxes and Pathologies.” D. Bawden and L. Robinson, Journal of Information Science (Vol 23, No. 2, 2009).

4. “Pronoun Use Reflects Standings in Social Hierarchies.” E. Kacewicz et al., Journal of Language and Social Psychology, (Vol 33, 2014).

The secrets to holding a successful book club  

Take the conversation further than the book club

To ensure that their learnings from the book club result in tangible organisational change, members of Book Club @ AGL have established a system for turning sentences into action. At each session, four pieces of butchers paper are laid out, each sporting a different theme: Inspirational Stories & Quotes, Take Action, Personal Hacks, and Other Stuff.

In preparation for the book club, attendees write interesting quotes or observations from the book onto post-it notes — sticking them up on one of the four boards during discussions. This not only keeps attendees accountable for carrying out actions they’ve said they want to implement in their own lives, but also serves as documentation of concepts they want to share with the wider AGL community.

How do you create (and sustain!) a great book club within your organisation?

Stephen Callaghan
“You need to pick quality and engaging books but more importantly you need a core of dedicated, passionate, quality and engaging people to drive it forward!”

Christiane Anderson
“To start a book club and maintain its momentum, you need be consistent at offering the book club, create a community and never stop it, even if at times the numbers are low. Choose quality engaging books and use the insights in the books to take action in your company. Sponsor books for attendees,  you don’t to read the whole book, distillate the key points that apply mostly to you. Invite authors to speak at your company and promote continuous learning and curiosity as a foundation to a high performing quality culture.”

Kim Linton
 “I agree with both Stephen and Christiane. I would also add it shows the culture of the organisation in the first place to even offer one. This could influence innovative, continuous learning types to join your business and contribute to it.”
Annett Reitmann
“I agree with the others and would add that to grow a book club, I think leaders need to actively encourage their people to make use of it, e.g. acknowledge that a book club is a great tool to aid your personal and career development.”
Hamdam Bishop
“Choosing diverse books that appeal to and engage different people and ensuring that the conversations at book club drive value for the individuals participating; what can they do, change, drive or learn?”
Other regular Book Club @ AGL attendees not interviewed above include Adele Pisano, Michelle Prosser-Roberts and John Siccita.
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