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Happiness and Other Keys to Successful Leadership


According to Grace Ueng, SB ’87, founder and CEO of Savvy Growth, the conventional wisdom on happiness and success is all wrong.

“Happiness is what fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive,” said Ueng, a leadership consultant and coach whose struggles with depression led her to pursue the study of positive psychology. She writes a regular column on happiness and leadership for WRAL TechWire.

Grace Ueng, SB ’87, Founder and CEO of Savvy Growth

Credit: Courtesy of Grace Ueng

Citing the work of her teachers Tal Ben-Shahar and Arthur Brooks, and other researchers in the field of positive psychology, Ueng told attendees of March’s MIT Sloan Alumni Online event that success is not the key to happiness. Rather, happiness is the key to success.

Speaking with moderator Jackie Selby, EMBA ’21, Ueng discussed the importance of happiness in the workplace as it pertains to leaders. To that end, she outlined important steps those in leadership roles can take to encourage happiness among their teams through efforts to bolster confidence, vulnerability, self-awareness, and goal setting.

As a single mother, Ueng recalled how the significance of these steps was brought to life for her when she took on her first executive role on a leadership team dominated by white men.

“At the time, my confidence wasn’t where it should have been or needed to be, but I was intrinsically motivated to figure it all out. I really needed to do well,” said Ueng. “Confidence is a bigger issue for women. It’s in much shorter supply for us.”

She felt especially vulnerable in this new position and went out of her way to “button up” herself while avoiding difficult topics like failure. Yet she learned over the years that vulnerability can be a strength, especially for leaders. “Being vulnerable encourages others to open themselves up and move towards you. It allows for them to feel safe,” she said.

Believing in yourself is the key to confidence, and confidence has been proven to be more important than competence in career success. Ueng recommended that the women in her audience focus less on pleasing others and more on acknowledging and accepting constructive feedback. Perfection is almost never possible, and even if it were, Ueng noted that it is not always a good thing.

Creating and being in a “psychologically safe environment” can provide for an incredibly positive experience for all.

“I encourage you all to say thanks when someone provides feedback. When someone has the courage to say something that’s difficult, it’s natural for us to get defensive. I know that that is my natural tendency. So, instead of immediately refuting them or being defensive, pause, take a deep breath, and say thank you. I encourage you all to try this,” said Ueng.

Being open and vulnerable can help leaders and their teams remove their masks and reveal their true selves. It also encourages everyone to become more self-aware of their strengths and areas they could adjust, which in turn can lay the groundwork for new learnings by setting goals—but not just any goals.

“A good leader sets ambitious, challenging goals for themselves, then thinks through how they can inspire others to do the same by example,” Ueng explained, adding that the high-level goals should be broad.

As a result, she concluded, leaders harnessing these and related methods for improving their team’s confidence, vulnerability, self-awareness, and goal setting can achieve something that many workplaces still struggle with: happiness.

“Happiness isn’t just a touchy-feely emotion. It’s actually based on a lot of science,” said Ueng. “It’s happiness that creates success. And if you make the time and create the space to work on it, happiness can and will pay you back in spades.”

MIT Sloan Alumni Online: Grace Ueng, SB '87

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933