The Mind of a Leader With Mike Lee

The mind of a leader today requires the self-awareness to understand your behaviors and the emotional intelligence to foster trust and safety with the people you lead. Self-awareness is essential to effect leadership because you need to understand how your presence, words and actions impact the people around you.

“One, if we’re not aware of what we’re modeling, we might actually be teaching things that we don’t want,” says Mike Lee, author of the upcoming book “New Rules for the Future of Leadership.” “Two, there can’t be a disconnect between what you say and what you do. It’s a quickest way to create disconnection and lose trust with your people.” 

There might be no one better equipped to speak about the mind of a leader than than Mike. His approach has helped world-class athletes, Fortune 500 companies and leading industry associations develop the purpose-driven, future-focused and heart-centered leadership skills we need today. 

Mike built a basketball training company from his college apartment, eventually working with up-and-coming basketball stars, including Steph Curry. Along the way, Mike was battling depression. Eventually, he moved from Wisconsin to Los Angeles, got off antidepressants and took up meditation and yoga. All of this led to a personal and career breakthrough: “I realized instead of building basketball players, the next purpose in my life was to build people and build leaders.”

Here are a few of the lessons I learned from talking with Mike about his book, life journey, and how he helps leaders develop their minds so they can be better at developing others.

Developing Mindfulness and Self-Awareness

Mike defines mindfulness as “having the nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts, feelings and actions in the present moment.” Leaders are role models; everything you do and say gets noticed. And if you aren’t mindful of your behaviors and whether they align with your values, a few consequences result.

One, you’re a bad role model. Two, this lack of alignment squanders your people’s trust. Three, people don’t want to work for leaders who aren’t in control of their emotional and mental state. 

“Mindfulness is the foundation of emotional intelligence,” Mike says. Research confirms this connection, with EQ pioneer Daniel Goleman noting that “the mechanism behind mindfulness is the improvement of broader emotional intelligence competencies.” Today’s leaders need  IQ and technical knowledge, but that isn’t enough to inspire great performance. They need to connect with their people through mindfulness, EQ and empathy.

Developing this mindfulness, however, is especially challenging in such a busy world full of distractions. And the deck is stacked against us. Mike cited Harvard research suggesting that we’re only truly present about 50% of the time. So, in a 40-hour week, we’ve already lost 20 hours.  

Mike defines the challenges as less about sustaining focus and more about sustaining awareness. “How many times do we get a notification on our phone and 15 minutes later, we find ourselves on Instagram, doing something with absolutely no intention?” Mike says. “And then have to redirect our attention back to whatever we were working on before we got that.” 

“We have to be aware of where we are placing our attention and our energy at any given moment so that we can operate with more intention,” Mike adds. 

The best way to get past this problem is by moving forward.  “The longer we continue to exist in this world, the faster everything’s going to get, the more distractions we’re going to have — and we have to have more awareness of where our attention and energy is,” Mike says. The good news is that there are science-backed mindfulness programs available to us, including athletes and corporations.

And while developing this awareness muscle is difficult, knowing is the first step forward. “In a world of constant distractions and partial attention,” Mike says, “winning the little moments day after day is what creates the compounding effect to drive big breakthrough results.”

Finding Purpose and Leaving a Legacy

There’s a natural tension between short-term thinking and long-term vision in business, whether that’s shareholders pushing for immediate returns or the difference in perspective between an older CEO looking at the next few years versus the 20-something just starting their career. 

Business is about growth and profit, of course, but that’s not the only thing senior leaders are thinking about. Mike finds that they increasingly ask themselves, “Is this actually making me happy? Is this extra $ million dollars or $10 million that I’m gonna squeeze out of this over the last few years really going to make me happier?”

This gets to another key value of Mike’s book, which is purpose. In leadership workshops, Mike asks leaders about the legacy they want to leave. “What do you want people to say about when you die? If somebody had to get up and give a eulogy at your funeral, what do you want people to say about you?” When Mike asks these questions, none of the answers mention shareholder profits.

Self-awareness matters with purpose, too. Mike says that “cultural conditioning” drives a lot of our obsessive focus on profit over everything else. But this is a false choice. “You can focus on your people, you can give them purpose and meaning, both at an individual level and organizational level, and still drive profits,” Mike says.

Showing Up From Your Heart

“The future of leadership will require leaders to embrace the heart of a spiritual leader and build the mindset of an athlete to navigate the change, disruption and adversity of today’s world,” Mike says. “They’ll need the empathy, compassion, and connection created by leading with the heart.”

Some people perceive heart-based leadership as being soft or going easy on employees. Mike has had the opposite experience. One of his best basketball coaches “was incredibly hard on me, but the reason he was able to be was because he took time to connect with me, to communicate with me, to build trust, and that’s what allowed him to challenge me to be at my best,” Mike says. 

That coach combined compassion and accountability. And because they had a relationship, Mike responded well to this coaching. “I don’t think compassion and challenging somebody are mutually exclusive,” Mike says. “I think that compassion for somebody actually gets the ability to challenge them more.”

We must challenge our people to do better, but only after creating the conditions for success. When you establish trust and psychological safety, employees will feel confident that their leader has their best interests at heart.

This formula of mindfulness, purpose and trust not only elevates individuals but entire organizations, Mike adds.

“When you have a purpose-driven organization, when you take that purpose and turn it into a compelling vision, you’re going to attract people with shared values,” Mike says. “Those three things — the vision, the purpose within the vision and attracting people with shared values — those are three things that definitely help people feel like they belong.”

Our discussion left me with much to reflect on personally and professionally regarding how to lead through times of great change. Mike’s perspectives provide a thoughtful road map for any leader seeking to navigate today’s complex environment with presence, purpose and care for their people and themselves.

Learn more about Mike and his upcoming book.

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