Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and performance science. Grace writes a regular column on happiness & leadership for WRAL TechWire.

Over the weekend, I received a LinkedIn invite from a fellow MIT Sloan alum:

I read about your work on happiness and leadership in the Sloan annual report. I really like your point that happiness creates success rather than the other way around. Thanks!

I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to read the Sloan annual report, but recalled when I spoke exactly one year ago on the “happiness advantage” show my topic was an a-ha to so many of the people in my MIT audience.

Given that, I thought it would be meaningful to share an outtake from MIT’s Sloan annual report where I was included as the #3 top 10 alumni story of 2023.

It was written by Andrew Husband.

From the inspiring story of one of the school’s first alumnae to the rising prominence of generative artificial intelligence (AI) applications in research and entrepreneurial endeavors, the MIT Sloan alumni community had many stories to tell this year.

Here are the top 10 alumni stories from 2023:

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.

Grace Ueng

Grace Ueng

She writes a regular column on happiness and leadership for WRAL TechWire.

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.

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.

“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.”

About Grace Ueng

A management consultant, leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth, Grace has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, Inc., and MIT Technology Review.  Leaders call her when seeking a strategic review of their business, when going through a pivot point, or when they’d like to have a thinking partner to hold them accountable to stretch goals.

Her company offers workshops to improve team effectiveness: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn.

Join her Happiness & Leadership community to be more productive leader: click here