Episode 31

How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way

with Rasmus Hougaard

April 26, 2022

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Rasmus Hougaard
Founder and CEO, Potential Project

Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and CEO of Potential Project and the author of the ground-breaking and best-selling book by Harvard Business Press, “The Mind of the Leader”. Rasmus is nominated by Thinkers 50 as one of the eight most important leadership thinkers in the world today. He writes for Harvard Business Review, Forbes and Business Insider. He is a sought-after keynote speaker and leadership developer who coaches and supports C-suite executives at global organizations such as IKEA, Accenture, Wal-Mart, and Unilever. His newest book, “Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way”, was published by Harvard Business Review Press in January 2022.


It is only when we have the courage to go into difficult situations to go into uncomfortable, sometimes confront sensitive conversations with others that we grow.



[00:00:28] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, good afternoon, Rasmus, and welcome.

[00:00:31] Rasmus Hougaard: Thank you very much, Gary. A pleasure to be here.

[00:00:33] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: We’re pleased to have you at this microphone. As you know, this show is about sustaining leadership excellence and you fit right in with your career that involves really significant work as an author. You’re, of course, the founder and CEO of a global business. So what led, if I can ask, Rasmus, what led to the founding of Potential Project? I know we are covering multiple years there, but what really led you to found your global company?

[00:01:06] Rasmus Hougaard: I think, for anything in most people’s lives, that’s not just one thing that led to that, but there’s probably at least three strands that leads to that. The first one was, when I was quite young, I was about 17, I actually completely lost confidence in the Western model of getting a good education, getting a good partner, getting a good car, getting a good career. All of that just didn’t add up to me. I didn’t see the point in it. And I felt I had to look elsewhere for a different way of doing life. And I went to Nepal and India and stayed there for quite some time and studied with some, let’s say, spiritual teachers from Buddhist tradition and other traditions that taught me meditation and taught me a different way of looking at the world and at life, not thinking about yourself first, but thinking about the impact and positivity you can bring to the world. That was definitely what was the foundation. Then I came back. I got my degree. I became a researcher and really learned the value of data, the value of thorough study of a situation before you come in and try to change something. Then I moved from there into corporates. And that was like when the coin dropped. I was working in the Sony Corporation as a leader for a number of years. And I saw how my employees and my peers and my superiors were constantly stressed out. They were not creative. They were not happy. They were overworked. They were burned out. And one day my own boss called me. We had this major, major meeting with our largest clients and he called me five minutes before and said he couldn’t make it. And I said, why not? And he said, I’m sitting in my car. And I said, what are you doing in my car? And he said, I can’t move. And he had just completely, out of stress and burnout, lost his ability to drive the car. I was just shocked by that. And it made me open the eyes and see he was not the only one, but everybody was suffering. Nobody was living up to their potential. And I thought, when I was young, I received all these amazing practices to train my own mind and to train my heart, to be a good person and to be clear minded, focused and resilient, and creative, and here amongst all these people that don’t have that. So I got to do something about that. And that’s when I decided to start Potential Project.

[00:03:28] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, can you describe it for us?

[00:03:32] Rasmus Hougaard: Yeah. So, Potential Product is, as you said, a global company. We are in some 30 countries working with around, I would say, 500 global clients like Microsoft and Cisco and Accenture, and all the big companies. And what we do is research leadership development, and consulting, really helping our clients to ultimately create a more human world at work, creating a more human world of work where people can be truly themselves, where people can feel truly cared for, where leaders are really good human beings that unlearn management and relearn being humans. It’s all about creating a world where, I have three kids and they are going to join the workforce in just a few years. I want them to have a good experience. And that’s the kind of world of work that we’re trying to create.

[00:04:21] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Rasmus, we’ve learned through the years, thousands of interviews, that if we can hear from our guests about their early years growing up, how they’ve evolved as a leader, that that gives us a better understanding of their leadership style and performance. And to that end, let me just start with, what was life like growing up for you, Rasmus?

[00:04:45] Rasmus Hougaard: It was actually really wonderful. It was beautiful. I loved my childhood. My parents came from a part of Denmark that is quite conservative and they moved to this little island in the Baltic Sea. A lot of artists, creative thinkers, moved there and my parents were some of those. So it was a very, very beautiful community of very free spirited people. And it was a lot of nature. So I just, I see myself as this little boy walking around in the woods, around the lakes, at the big cliffs at the water, with the waves coming up. That was what life was like, and just surrounded by a lot of really beautiful people. It was a beautiful time.

[00:05:26] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, and I think about your time in New York City in contrast. That’s quite a change. But that sounds like an idyllic existence, really. What did the young Rasmus think about leadership? At what point did you begin to think about leadership?

[00:05:45] Rasmus Hougaard: I would say I didn’t spare that a single thought when I was a child, not a single thought. But having said that, I think I learned a lot because the community that I was surrounded by was very non-hierarchical. The school I went to, there was not a school principal. Teachers together were making decisions. So everything was very flat in that way. Not hierarchical, not top down. And I think that has just always been how I thought about how to get stuff done, is through influence and through communication, but not through mandates and commands. That has definitely shaped how I see leadership.

[00:06:25] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: How about your parents? Have they influenced your leadership style?

[00:06:29] Rasmus Hougaard: I think so, a lot. They both were in leadership positions in healthcare and social work. And I think they also embodied this very flat, very, you lead by influence, you lead by having good conversations. And so it’s just always been natural to me. I’ve always questioned the other way of leading, the more traditional top-down. It just never really made sense to me.

[00:06:49] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You’re a prolific author, Rasmus. Do you enjoy writing?

[00:06:57] Rasmus Hougaard: I think it’s like anything else. If you have the time, anything is beautiful and wonderful, or at least can be. In my situation, leading some 200 people, I don’t have that much time. And when I used to, I really enjoyed writing. But these days, I have to confess I am using a lot of my colleagues and a professional writer to make things more polished and clear. But when I have the time, I really enjoy it, yes.

[00:07:27] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Do you have a pattern? Is there a certain time that you write? Some people write early in the morning? Some people write late at night. Any pattern?

[00:07:36] Rasmus Hougaard: I tried to do that and it just didn’t work because the intensity of my work is just so that there’s no time of day where I’m standing still. So I realized I need to take out chunks of time. So it’s like everything from three to seven days, I just block completely, go to somewhere with no internet, and then just sit and write with the people I write with.

[00:07:58] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, let’s dig in to “Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things the Human Way”. One of the obvious questions, given that you operate in 30 some countries, does each culture interpret the term compassionate leadership the same way?

[00:08:14] Rasmus Hougaard: No. No. There’s a lot of different interpretations of that. And even the word compassion is so differently understood even in a country like America, where it’s the native word. Case in point, most people don’t know what is the difference between empathy and compassion. And they think it’s the same thing. And it is absolutely not. Empathy is a really important skill for leaders. We need to be able to connect with the suffering we see in other people so they can see we understand them. And then there is communication. But as a leader, if we stay in empathy, where we are literally taking on the suffering of that other person, we can’t be effective in helping them and driving an agenda. So making that distinction is really important. And so in any culture, we have to help define what compassionate leadership means, including, the biggest misinterpretation people have is, when we’re compassionate, we’re nice. We’re nice people giving people what they want, which is not what compassion is. Compassion is about doing the right thing for people, helping them on their path, which can be giving really tough feedback, which can even be laying people off. So, yeah, there’s a lot of different interpretations. So we need to do some education on that.

[00:09:34] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah, for sure. I test drove the term with some of my friends and some of them said that’s an ideal, Rasmus, but I don’t know if I could actually do it on a day-to-day basis. I’m sure you hear that, have heard it before. How do you respond to that kind of thought?

[00:09:52] Rasmus Hougaard: Well, that’s a really wonderful question. First of all, ideals are good because that means there is an ideal scenario that’s better than what we have now. So if we see compassionate leadership as an ideal, that’s good. Then the question is, is it doable? And my answer is, absolutely yes. Otherwise we wouldn’t have written a book about it. So we’ve been working the field for some 10 years. We have seen about, I would say, probably about 25,000 leaders turning some better versions of themselves, kinder people that do better to the people they lead, and thereby being happier themselves and having more resilience and so on. So it’s very, very doable and it’s a wonderful ideal to have.

[00:10:32] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: So we’ve been talking about COVID on and off as you and I have chatted. How have you seen workers kind of change perhaps in response to COVID? And then how does that influence leaders?

[00:10:44] Rasmus Hougaard: Yeah, that’s a great question. And we’re seeing a sea change there, a sea change that already started before COVID in the past decade or so, but has been on steroids for the last two years. And the movement is this: people come into the workforce expecting to have a good work experience, especially with the younger generations. The companies that can give that experience are the ones that will not just attract, but also retain the absolute best talent, and therefore win. In COVID, where we have moved to a new way of working, working from home or hybrid, people can work anywhere. Anyone in India can work for Google in Silicon Valley. No problem. So now there is suddenly a much bigger pressure on companies to create cultures that are truly wonderful to be in. And the main part of that is having good leaders. So the expectations of leaders has been increased massively. It’s putting a massive pressure on leaders. How do I show up in a different way? So COVID is a really good thing for workers, I would say, in general, and for leaders’ own development.

[00:11:55] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: So it takes a while for these trends to feed back into education. I’m thinking perhaps about a business degree, an MBA. So, are leaders kind of on their own here to try to figure this out and adapt to it?

[00:12:09] Rasmus Hougaard: I want to say yes and no. I think, first of all, yes they are because, as you say, education systems move slowly. Having said that, business education does move faster than other parts of education, I think, because it’s in so close contact with the real world. And I do see a lot of business schools, both in the US and abroad, that are really picking up some of the key terms around how to become good leaders, not just effective leaders, but good leaders.

[00:12:41] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You made reference to kind of leadership over the last decade beginning to change. And it’s been on steroids in the last couple of years because of COVID. What’s your view, Rasmus, of let’s say the last 25 years, from the old days in IBM, where they used to wear a white shirt and a hat to work and that’s kind of a dramatic example, but how has leadership evolved over the last 25 years or so, would you say?

[00:13:10] Rasmus Hougaard: There’s so much to say about that. One analogy that I think is a good one that I was passed on by the former managing partner of McKinsey, Don Barden, who I think was an amazing leader. He said the idea of the leader coming in on a white horse and saving a company and being the sole course of success is just so outdated. So outdated. Leadership today is much more about influencing people to see a great future, how to get there, and then get them motivated. There are no of the newer generations, which are the ones that are driving the workforce now, that buy into the idea of being told what to do. We are all autonomous human beings. We like to be autonomous and to have control over what we do and how we do it. So, top down command and control, all that stuff, is so outdated. And I would say even the management disciplines that has been taught for years, how to do a good performance management review session, all of that is just outdated. It is much more about how we show up as human beings, how we are as human beings. It’s much more about how we do things rather than what we do. Everything is different and should be different.

[00:14:37] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Your work really is what I would call evidence-based. That’s a term that we use a lot in healthcare. I don’t know if it’s used outside healthcare much, but for the book, you conducted a 350 person survey, mostly CEOs and CHROs. Any surprises there? Did you pretty much reinforce what you were thinking or had things evolved in a different way than you might’ve expected?

[00:15:04] Rasmus Hougaard: As you’re aware, when you do really large scale studies, we did a study on 35,000 leaders around the world. The data is so strong that, no matter what ideas you had before, you just need to listen. And there were definitely a number of things there that were very, very surprising and wonderfully surprising. And I could talk for hours about that. Maybe there’s two just highlights at least for me. One is maybe not surprising, but it was just so strong. And the other one is really wonderfully refreshing, I think. The first one was, data showed very clearly that a leader that shows up with compassion, so caring attitude to his or her employees, will have around a 38% increase in the follower’s job satisfaction, performance, and so on. A leader that shows up with a lot of, let’s say, business acumen, courage to do difficult things, has on average around 40% increase in those things. But leaders that have both, so that hit that sweet spot of being a good person and being a hard leader, they had more than double the effects. So being able to combine the two is really a massive sweet spot of leadership. And seeing that data, the first time we saw that data actually coming in through, crunching all that number, was just an amazing moment. So being good and being hard at the same time, that is what leaders need to be. So that was one big aha. Wow. Fantastic. The other one is, and I can say this easily because it could seem politicized, but I can say it because the data speaks for itself, women are better leaders, period. Data is conclusive. That was just a very interesting finding. Out of the four constellation of females leading females, females leading males, males leading females, and males leading males, the best constellation is female leading a female, then female leading a male, then a male leading a female, then a male to a male. There’s something to say about females. They have got something in their leadership style that works better, and I think it is less authoritarian, less top down, more by influence.

[00:17:18] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah. That’s particularly interesting. How is that point received generally? I could see some of my male buddies thinking, well, no, that’s not true. But I mean, I could understand how that could be true, but how is that basically received as you go out and work with various companies and leaders?

[00:17:40] Rasmus Hougaard: It is very well received. And I think the reason for that is that almost all leaders right now are seeking. What is the new world of leadership? In a hybrid world where everything is disrupted, how should I show up as a leader? So leaders generally are very, very open to learn what is the new world. And I think the point here is not, oh, then we need to get more female leaders. Well, that could be a point. But it is more, what can we learn from the female leaders that can be adopted generally into leadership models? And I said, I think the idea of letting go of top-down mandating is a good thing. More leading by influence, by collaboration, by tuning into people, really listening and understanding where they’re at is really important.

[00:18:26] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah, that’s an important point. You used the term in the book, wise compassion, which seems to be a pretty descriptive term, but can you describe how you arrived at that term and how that’s received with your clients and others?

[00:18:43] Rasmus Hougaard: So the idea of why compassion comes back to the point we found on the data before. Being a good person and why is expressing having business acumen and the courage to go into difficult conversations. When you have that combination, that’s what we call wise compassion, which is different from, let’s say naive compassion, which is where you have a lot of care for people, but you don’t do the hard things that you need to do. Or the other extreme, which is where you have a lot of business acumen. You can be very manipulative. You can be very hard. But you don’t have care for people, which are the two extremes. This is the middle way where we’re doing hard things in a human way.

[00:19:20] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You’ve made reference to this before. Let me ask the question directly. And that is, how does this term, the great resignation, how does that affect the ground rules for leaders, Rasmus?

[00:19:32] Rasmus Hougaard: In so many ways. As we talked about before, because people can work from anywhere and everybody is wanting to quit, I mean, the numbers are staggering. 84% of American employees are considering quitting right now. That’s unheard of. It’s unbelievable. So that means leaders need to really double down on their, I would say, wise compassion or, in more lay terms, on their genuine care for the people that they are leading, because if they don’t do that, they will lose them. But at the same time, I think it’s important to flip the great resignation or the great attrition to the great attraction, because the flip coin of this or the flip side of the coin here is that leaders can also attract all the geat talent because talent is looking at moving anyway. So if you as a leader can go out and really show your best self, you can attract, and companies can attract, really great people. So the great attrition is also the great attraction. There’s a great potential here. And it comes down to changing the game of leadership, as you say.

[00:20:38] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: The answer to this question may be obvious, but you are exposed to so many leaders in multiple cultures. Do you think that there’s any danger that, once COVID, the intensity of COVID is gone or diminished, will leaders kind of forget all of this and go back to the way, their old habits, so to speak?

[00:21:01] Rasmus Hougaard: I don’t think so. I think, had the pandemic gone for just two months, yeah, definitely. But it’s been going on for so long now that everybody is rethinking the playbook around, how do we do group leadership in our company? I’m speaking with so many CHROs and CLOs and they’re all rethinking, how do we make sure that what we have learned here stays for the future? So there is massive change in how leadership is thought and implementation of changes.

[00:21:35] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: No One follow-up th, you used the the acronym, CLO, which I think means Chief Learning Officer. How many companies, mid-size to large companies, have a Chief Learning Officer these days?

[00:21:49] Rasmus Hougaard: Certainly all large companies have a Chief Learning Officer, all of them. I would say any company that have more than 10, 15,000 employees, I would say, have a Chief learning Officer. Or they would call it Director of Learning or VP of Learning, whatever. Yeah.

[00:22:05] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, let’s review several key topics of the book, Rasmus. One chapter heading is, “Unlearn Management. Return Being Human.” Tell us more about that, would you?

[00:22:17] Rasmus Hougaard: Yeah. So that’s one of the key mantras of the book is this whole idea of relearning being human. And the idea of that is that, especially before COVID, many leaders have been taught old regimens of how to lead or how to be a manager, like how to do a performance review session, how to give feedback. And it’s all put in boxes and numbered and all that stuff. And that means, as leaders, it’s not really you, but you’re following a prescriptive diet of how you should show up. But as humans, we’re all different. And then add to that, that each individual you’re talking to is different. So if we’re sticking to these recipes, it doesn’t fit us completely and it doesn’t fit the context of the other person. It doesn’t work. Humans that join organizations are humans and they want to have a human experience. And if leaders are showing up with recipes, that’s not human. That’s just robotic. So leadership in the 21st century is about unlearning management, relearning being human. That means having the courage and the vulnerability to show up in one-on-one conversations almost mentally naked and see, okay, so where is this conversation going to take us? How can I support the person in front of me being a better person? It’s a very different way of leading than following the old models.

[00:23:52] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Very much so. You use the term in the book, common humanity. Is that what you mean by what you were just discussing?

[00:24:00] Rasmus Hougaard: Yeah. Common humanity is basically the foundation of that common humanity is actually a, I think it’s a term that the Dalai Lama has coined. He’s saying very basic, there’s one thing that ties all humans to together, or all sentient beings for that matter, is we all want to be happy. We may express that in different ways. We may seek it in different ways. But we’re all looking for happiness and none of us wants to suffer. But, we all suffer. Like under the surface of looking glamorous and successful and VP, whatever, we all suffer. We all get sick. We all lose people we love. We all lose a job. We all have shit in our lives. And for leaders, realizing that first about yourself, and second about the people you’re leading, allows us to connect on that common humanity. Hey, we’re in this conversation together and I’m your boss. We’re both human beings that want to be happy and that want to avoid suffering. And if we can connect on that level, we will have a much better conversation.

[00:25:04] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Just building on that, we talked about the greater good and leading for the greater good, so to speak. And what’s your advice to somebody whose day-to-day problems with COVID and difficulties in a variety of kind of tactical ways, how do you advise people to think about leading for the greater good in those situations, Rasmus?

[00:25:30] Rasmus Hougaard: Yeah, that’s a great question because it can seem like, oh man, I don’t need to just do my job. I also need to add benefit to the humanity and so on. That’s just an added burden. Wow. So I would say, start with yourself. You, yourself, are part of the greater good. You’re part of humanity. Take care of yourself first. Make sure you get enough sleep, first of all, because without sleep, we all just don’t play to our strength. Second, you make sure get time for yourself. Just do what you need to take care of yourself. Like have a genuine sense of self compassion. And then our research shows that those leaders that actually start to adopt those practices, man, they suddenly become way more resilient. And when you take care of yourself, you have much more capacity for taking care of others. So it always starts by yourself. Take care of yourself. And then you will feel compelled to take care of other people. If you feel a sense of overview and energy, and you see someone that’s suffering, all of us are innately good. So our immediate response is, hey pal, man, I see you’re suffering. What can I do? It just comes natural to most of us. Don’t try to fix the world. First, take care of yourself, and then you can take care of others.

[00:26:54] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, I was smiling with get enough sleep because I’m guilty as charged, Rasmus. I need more counsel in that area. But you know, you also make the point, always give more than you take. Can you give us an example of how that works? I mean, I understand the point, but how does that work as a practical matter?

[00:27:16] Rasmus Hougaard: Yeah. Give more than you take. I like to make it even a little more broad and say, always leave a situation, whether that’s a person or a work situation or a room, nicer than when you came. Try and add some benefits, wherever you can. And we have to, of course start with ourselves. Every day, leave ourselves in a little bit place, better place, than we found ourselves in the morning. Take a little bit better care of ourselves so that, in the evening, we feel okay. And next day we are a little bit better. Add onto that. After you have done that, apply that to any person you meet. Before you go into a conversation with someone, just take one minute to just reflect on, where’s that person at? What are his or her problems and how can I support that person either through feedback or just by support or by coaching, or simply just lending an ear and not doing anything? That’s what it means to always give more than you take. Don’t go into situations asking, what can I get out of this? Because if you do that, it’s always a zero sum game.

[00:28:26] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: This is probably a good point to ask this question that is hotly debated by some. And that is, are some people natural leaders? And just like they might be naturally good athletes or naturally good musicians, are some people naturally good leaders, have you found? That doesn’t mean that, if they’re not, they can’t work to become better. But how do you talk to people about that because I know some people are concerned about, I’m not a naturally good leader, so I just can’t do it.

[00:28:59] Rasmus Hougaard: I would say, first of all, to those people that say that, you seem to be self aware enough that you can develop to be an exceptional leader. That would be my first take. The ones that say, yeah, I can be a great leader. Those other ones we should be concerned about because that may not be enough self-awareness to see their own flaws and shortcomings, which we all have. But to answer your question more specifically, we all have the potential to develop. We all have the potential to be better at anything, including leadership, but some are born with, but also raised in a way that they adopt naturally ways of engaging with human beings that are just more compelling, more motivating for the human beings we are with. And those obviously have a massive headstart. I think personally, I had a great headstart by being raised in a very flat structure, where it was, as I mentioned, about influence. That has really helped me to always, people feel that I’m trying to bring them onto a sense of purpose and a mission by not telling them what to do, but to tell them to just do what they feel is the right thing. That helps a lot. So yeah, some people are born in a easier path to become great leaders, but we can all be better.

[00:30:17] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: There’s another chapter in the book called “Busy-ness Kills Your Heart”. Can you talk to us about that one, Rasmus?

[00:30:25] Rasmus Hougaard: This chapter came out of a conversation I had with a person from China many years ago, who shared with me that the word busy-ness, not business, but busy-ness, in Chinese consists of two syllables, one meaning killing and the other meaning heart. So literally the Chinese wisdom about business is that, when we become busy, we become very head centered, losing connection with our heart. That is basically what’s happening when we make ourselves busy. We become very operational, very robotic. And it’s not a good thing because we’re killing the heart to ourselves and to other beings.

[00:31:04] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You make the point that busy-ness is addictive. Can you share more of your thinking there?

[00:31:10] Rasmus Hougaard: Busy-ness is addictive because, from a neuroscientific perspective, when we achieve something, which is what we do when we’re busy, let’s say, oh, I’m so busy, I’m going to respond to this email. The moment we click send on that email, dopamine is released in the brain as a reward for having achieved something. And dopamine is highly addictive. So then we want to do more emails. But we all know emails is not the most productive. It is not the thing that leads the most outcome. We should rather go and have an important conversation with someone or do some strategic thinking. But it is easier to be just busy because we are getting rewarded for it. We call it action addiction. We’re basically in the treadmill of doing a lot of stuff, but not necessarily doing the stuff that really moves the needle.

[00:31:59] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Some people just don’t take care of themselves and they’re just interested in doing emails and that’s basically it. How do you counsel them to begin to take more control of their life, which then will help them as leaders.

[00:32:14] Rasmus Hougaard: I think there are two things that generally work well. One is to ask them how they would counsel one of their dear friends because nobody would advise a dear friend to live the life that they’re living. The second thing is more the stick, which is showing the research that we did for our previous book called “The Mind of the Leader”, where we did a study on some 50,000 leaders, finding that those that actually take care of themselves are raising the ranks much faster, having better careers, basically. There’s an interesting part of the study that showed that executives sleep on average 7.4 hours, whereas middle managers sleep 5.79 hours. So there is a direct correlation between how much actually take care of yourself and how fast you raise your rank. You could say, oh, but that’s because the executives are busy. But I think we all know that that is probably not true. So if you take care of your yourself, you’re going to have better results, period.

[00:33:12] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: It seems like, and you’ve mentioned this several times, put people first is kind of a major theme in your thinking about leadership. Is that a fair assessment?

[00:33:23] Rasmus Hougaard: I think so. I’ve been very inspired by the many companies that have gone before me and done this. One that particularly inspired me has been Marriott, one of the largest companies in the world. And their whole people philosophy is, if we take care of our people, they’ll take care of our guests and business will take care of itself. And they have always stuck a hundred percent, I shouldn’t say always because it’s a big company, I’m sure there’s been flaws, but generally they’ve really stick to that taking care of people and it works.

[00:33:53] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: So another chapter is called “Courage Over Comfort”. Can you describe that for us please, Rasmus?

[00:34:01] Rasmus Hougaard: Yeah Ginni Rometty, the chairman and former CEO of IBM, shared this as one of her mantras. She basically said comfort and growth cannot co-exist. We cannot grow as humans and we cannot help our people to grow if we don’t get out of the comfort zone. That requires being courageous. It is only when we have the courage to go into difficult situations, to go into uncomfortable, sometimes confrontative, conversations with others that we grow. So we always need to choose courage over comfort because that’s where the real growth is.

[00:34:44] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: How do you advise people who are just reluctant to be in a confrontational situation, let’s say with an employee?

[00:34:52] Rasmus Hougaard: I would say we need to practice for things that we want to be good at and especially the things that we find difficult. So we should not practice when we are only in the situation. We should start practicing before so that when rubber hits the road, we are ready. And the way to do that, the way to basically train our courage to go into difficult conversations, is to do a lot of micro courage moments. And that could look like making a commitment for one’s self every day to have one tiny courageous conversation, giving a little bit of feedback that is difficult for you. When you make a habit of that, it just becomes a habit and it starts to flow more naturally. And then suddenly one day you wake up and it’s easy. It’s not a problem anymore.

[00:35:42] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: I’m thinking of your consulting business. Is that something you can practice? Is that something you actually work with your leadership clients to develop a better approach to that?

[00:35:54] Rasmus Hougaard: Absolutely. That is a big part of the work we do in helping them to be more courageous. And we should add to that, caringly courageous. That is not courage in the sense of, I’ve got the courage now and I’m going to smash you. That’s not caring courage. Caring courage has to be always with the intention or the purpose of supporting the person that you’re with.

[00:36:14] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: How do you go about talking about creating a courageous culture in a company? I mean, it’s one thing as an individual, but it’s another thing to develop a courageous culture. How do you think about that?

[00:36:27] Rasmus Hougaard: First of all, it starts with you as a leader in your team showing up with courage, having the difficult conversations and showing that it’s okay. And after having had a hard conversation, you can still laugh and go for it here. When you normalize courage, then it normalizes and it starts to see it through because everybody can see that it is a better way of working. Things move faster if we do it that way.

[00:36:52] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: “Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in Human Ways”, is just a terrific book. And I would advise anybody who’s listening to this, it’s definitely worth getting. What’s next on the drawing boards, Rasmus? Are you thinking about other books at this point?

[00:37:08] Rasmus Hougaard: There’s always a few books in the waitlist and I think the next book that that we’ll be doing, I’ll say we because it’s never me, it’s always a group of us, especially my business partner, Jacqueline Carter. I think the next one that we will be doing is doing a big study on, what is a human world of work? Like what are the hallmarks, what are the pillars of an organization where people feel truly cared for, where people feel they can absolutely thrive, where people feel a sense of inner nourishment and growth by simply being part of that organization. If we can crack that code, we can make the world of work so much better place.

[00:37:49] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, we’re waiting for that one. You’re right. That would be terrific. We’d like to learn a little bit more about Potential Project, your a global company. What kind of services are the clients asking for these days?

[00:38:04] Rasmus Hougaard: One thing that is a big theme for many executive teams and leadership teams is to get together in a very, very immersive way because people have been apart for so long now and it is taxing on the trust, on the speed of collective decision-making, on the collective thinking oriented towards the same purpose and goal. So executives and leadership teams are starving to get together in very, very intense settings where they can have the very, very important conversations. And that is something that we do a lot of. So we literally take executive teams up into mountains, into deserts, out to the sea, in a lot of solitude and silence where the space to really think of the real important things, and then execute that together.

[00:39:02] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You made reference earlier to leading millennials, but what tips do you provide leaders for leading millennials and Gen Zs, for example?

[00:39:12] Rasmus Hougaard: Be really genuinely interested in who they are and what matters for them because that is what matters for them, being seen, being heard, being seen for what they are so that they can bring their best skills and capabilities to bear at work.

[00:39:30] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: How does leadership vary from country to country? I mean, how do you have to adapt your basic approach from country to country?

[00:39:39] Rasmus Hougaard: There has to be small adaptations, but generally when we do as big studies as we do, we get to what I would call almost a universal languages of what matters for human beings, not for specific cultures. And I’ll give a few examples. Being present with someone else when you’re a leader, being present with someone else, works across any culture. Any culture appreciates that you’re actually looking in the eye and having a full presence there. Another thing is having compassion. I mean, the intention, I’m here to support you. It’s a universal human language that completely overrides any cultural, company cultural, patterns. So that’s what we’re trying to get to, the universal human languages.

[00:40:31] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Rasmus, this has been a remarkable interview. We very much appreciate your time. I have one last question if I could. And that is, in our audience are some folks that are up and comers that are working their way up the leadership ladder, so to speak. What advice would you have for them?

[00:40:49] Rasmus Hougaard: I would say two and a half things. First of all, taking care of yourself. And I’m just saying that based on all the leaders I’ve worked with, but most of the research we’ve done. If you take care of yourself, you’re going to have a better career, get enough sleep, get some exercise, get good food, and so on. When you can take care of yourself, take care of the people that you are leading because, if people appreciate how you take care of them and how you lead them, they’re going to work much better and they’re even going to enjoy that. And that will make you successful. But in being a good person, always combine that with also doing the hard things. So combining that courage with the care, combining the compassion with the wisdom, that is the real sweet spot of leadership.

[00:41:39] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Rasmus, that’s terrific advice. This whole interview has really been just excellent. Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.

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