I post on a variety of topics related to contemporary leadership and some of those topics require self-reflection because they are related to the human element of educational and business enterprises. This particular post is probably the most pointed one I’ve written as it relates to the human side of leadership.
As managers, leaders, teachers, administrators, etc. our undeniable common bond is that we are all human beings. Despite that fact, I’m convinced that one of the single greatest failures in contemporary organizations is either the denial of the underlying humanity comprised by the people in those organizations or, worse, the purposeful effort to strip the human element from daily decisions and operations. Why is this? In short, it is a simple lack of imagination. Despite what many organizations profess about their value systems, when push comes to shove, they are remarkably reactionary. Things like empathy or patience or empowerment don’t translate well with traditional organizational behaviors.
Organizations and the leaders in them are quite good at acknowledging and rewarding things like “hitting the numbers” and meeting deadlines. They’re also quite good at rewarding behaviors such as perseverance and the appearance of activity. Most organizations (and their leaders) are miserable, however, at honoring the people who make up the organizations as human beings. In fact, managers are often allowed to mistreat subordinates and even drive people out of the business if they are otherwise “hitting the numbers.” The irony, of course, is that no manager, no matter how operationally skilled, can achieve results over the long term if he or she hurts and alienates others in the organization. The simple reason is that long-term success comes from teamwork, not individual accomplishments, and folks who are mistreated rarely make motivated, engaged team members.
In most organizations, we rarely take time to understand where people come from or what they value or what motivates them. Most senior managers do not know the personal stories of the individuals in their departments or functional areas—and this is a profound loss for the company/school, etc. and a major blind spot for the manager him or herself. Knowing these personal stories explains so much about a person’s behavior, motivations, idiosyncrasies, etc. And having this personal knowledge also makes it much harder for us to treat each other impersonally, let alone poorly. Although such stories have to be shared voluntarily, in safe spaces, doing so can be quite empowering to both employees and leaders.
Another important way in which we often fail to acknowledge and honor the humanity that underlies organizations is that we are rarely thoughtful about supporting employees and other managers in finding purpose in what they do. For so many people working today, their daily efforts are a slog through decontextualized task completion. There is no clear connection between what they do and the end game, let alone to what is value added for the customer/student/client, etc. And there is rarely any consistent connection to the local community in which they work—little or no opportunity to give back and to experience the direct benefit of their efforts.
And, very importantly, this failure to connect with employees as human beings is not just a moral or cultural issue. It is at the center of typical turnover and productivity problems in organizations—turnover and performance that can be the difference between surviving or thriving in a turbulent, competitive environment. You can see some very interesting research on this dynamic here.
So, what is a contemporary manager/leader to do? In addition to learning personal stories and supporting connections to purpose, a wise leader would also spend some time connecting to his or her own humanity. One simple way to do that is to create a personal vision statement. Unlike mission statements, vision statements are aspirational. They are based, at least in part, in current reality, but by definition they reflect what could be. And, in this case, the vision statement is about what you want to be as a human being first and a manager/leader second. If we spent more time thinking about what values and behaviors we would like to anchor us as human beings, we would likely be better people AND better leaders. You can see a sample personal vision statement here.
A follow up activity for those managers who are feeling particularly bold is to share the vision statement with colleagues and subordinates and ask them to identify any behaviors that they think align with the vision statement—and any that do not. One can also ask for any suggested behaviors or actions that would align with the vision. For those motivated enough to pursue such an activity, it will be a source of deep self-reflection leading to surprising self-awareness!
A final note of caution: Even though there is compelling evidence that organizations that honor individuals as human beings achieve real performance benefits in addition to a moral victory, few entities encourage or support leaders who build a leadership practice around healthy organizations and care for employees. The kinds of behaviors, decisions, activities, values, policies, etc. that support humanity in organizations are often foreign or even confusing to many stakeholders (investors, owners, boards, other executives) and despite the profound benefit to be gained, leaders who choose to pursue that path often do so at some risk to themselves.