In this episode of Exploring Leadership, Goldman Schuyler interviews Rasmus Hougaard, founder and CEO of Potential Project, a global consulting firm emphasizing how simple mindfulness practice combined with an attitude of compassion helps leaders do hard things in a human way.
Exploring Leadership is a series of conversations hosted by Kathryn Goldman Schuyler in which she introduces viewers to leaders who dance with possibility and whose creativity, depth, and vision bring leadership to life — people from many arenas whose lives add vitality and meaning to our planet.
Blog About the Interview
“All Human Beings Are Inherently Good….”:
A Conversation with Rasmus Hougaard — Author, Company Founder, and CEO
In Potential Project, company founder and CEO Rasmus Hougaard has created one of the largest nonprofits consulting globally to leaders from the perspective of helping them to understand and manage their minds. Before working in the corporate world, Rasmus studied in monasteries in India and Nepal and then directed a major meditation center in Copenhagen. I spoke with him to glean wisdom about how he incorporates both ancient teachings and contemporary science in his books, training, and consulting. Potential Project’s approach is to emphasize how simple mindfulness practice combined with an attitude of compassion helps leaders do hard things in a human way.
I immediately felt comfortable with Rasmus. He has an easy warmth that seems accepting and is very clear and articulate. He has built his company over 12 years to one that works in 28 countries on four continents, in 17 languages. To join it as a facilitator, one is expected to have had a mindfulness practice, usually for at least five years, and to have experienced regular in-depth retreats. In addition, facilitators must have a strong professional background as a manager, consultant, or professor. It’s encouraging to see such a commitment to personal practice in a consulting firm.
Rasmus believes that leaders of many organizations around the world live in what he calls the “PAID (Pressure, Always on, Information overload, Distracted) world.” In my consulting experience, I have also found this to be true for many leaders. The combination he has brought together of mindfulness and compassion makes it possible to put the PAID world aside, clear one’s mind, think about people and their needs, and make necessary decisions. Potential Project supports their framework with data, both on their website and in Rasmus’s new book Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way (Harvard Business Press, 2022). Their user-friendly research reports, gathered in partnership with researchers from Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, show that over half of leaders are out of touch with the way they are perceived by their people. They also show that when leaders manifest both wisdom and compassion, the job satisfaction and engagement of their employees are significantly higher (see https://www.potentialproject.com/research ). I found it particularly interesting to read that, in the population they sampled, female leaders rated themselves fairly high in compassion and wisdom and were rated higher in both by their teams, whereas male leaders rated themselves higher on both than the women leaders did but were rated below average on both by their teams (Hougaard & Carter, 2022, p. 49).
So many aspects of civil society and work are in the midst of rapid, disruptive change. This is why I have found it essential for leaders to embrace some type of awareness practice. It enables us to bring ourselves into the present, quieting the often busy chatter in our minds or the constant planning, and get back in touch with our heart, connection and love of people and life, and our purpose for doing the work we do. As Sandra Waddock and Erica Steckler have shown in their fascinating research on the leaders who created the social responsibility movement in investing (Steckler & Waddock, 2018; Waddock & Steckler, 2013), such a practice may be one of mindfulness or meditation, but it may also be anything done regularly that gets one in touch with beauty, nature, oneself, and others.
As Rasmus and I spoke, it seemed more and more obvious that such training can be done fairly easily and should be intrinsic to all professional education in today’s world. The amount of pressure that leaders, as well as professionals in healthcare, social work, education, and services like policing and firefighting, are under seems only to be increasing. With simple training in awareness and compassion practices, leaders can be more present in tough situations — as both his and my research show (Goldman Schuyler et al., 2019; Hougaard & Carter, 2022).
About Potential Project & CEO Rasmus Hougaard
Potential Project is a global consulting organization that works in 28 countries with over 200 consultants. It describes itself as being “on a mission to create a more human world of work.” Its company founder and CEO, Rasmus Hougaard, has co-authored several books on leadership, including his most recent: Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way (Harvard Business Press, 2022). He also writes for Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Business Insider and supports C-suite executives at global organizations such as IKEA, Accenture, Wal-Mart, Cisco, and Unilever.
Goldman Schuyler, K., Wolberger, O.M., Gillette, M., & Samad, M. (2019). Mindfulness, love, and greater good at work: A research-based exploration. Journal of Leadership Studies, 13(3), 44-49. https://doi.org/10.1002/jls.21661
Hougaard, R. & Carter, J. (2022). Compassionate leadership: How to do hard things in a human way. Harvard Business Review Press.
Steckler, E., & Waddock, S. (2018). Self-Sustaining practices of successful social change agents: A retreats framework for supporting transformational change. Humanistic Management Journal, 2, 171–198. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41463-017-0031-9
Waddock, S., & Steckler, E. (2013). Wisdom, spirituality, social entrepreneurs, and self-sustaining practices: What can we learn from difference makers? In J. Neal (Ed.) The handbook for faith and spirituality in the workplace, pp. 285-301. Springer.
Kathryn Goldman Schuyler has many years of experience in leadership development, organizational consulting, research, and somatic learning. She has helped hundreds of executives to cultivate healthy organizations and is Professor Emeritus of Organization Development at Alliant International University. Kathryn has published widely on leadership and change and is the author of Inner Peace – Global Impact (IAP, 2012) and the lead editor of Leading With Spirit, Presence, and Authenticity (Jossey Bass/Wiley, 2014), and Creative Social Change: Leadership for a Healthy World (Emerald, 2016). In 2020, she was chair of ILA’s first virtual global conference, Leading at the Edge. Her most recent articles on mindfulness and leadership have been published in the SAGE journal Leadership, the Journal of Leadership Studies, and the Journal of Management Inquiry.
Her recent research focuses on awareness, connection, and inclusion. Her explorations of generative mindfulness highlight how being fully present enhances participants’ connectedness with others and the natural environment, while renewing their sense of purpose in their work and creating a culture of inclusion. She has studied with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche, Roshi Joan Halifax and Lama Tharchin Rinpoche. Kathryn and her husband, a composer, live overlooking San Francisco, a view that encourages them to pause and appreciate gleaming sunsets and foggy mornings, the calls of ravens and the circling of hawks, and the sparkling city lights.