BREAKING NEWS: Leaders Are Human

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“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.” ~ Haruki Murakami

As humans, we are born vulnerable – in every sense of the meaning, and throughout life, we develop significant mental and emotional defenses to protect ourselves from perceived threats.  What are these threats? In a word: judgment.

We fear that others are keeping an ongoing tally of when we make mistakes, admit failures, have an unpopular opinion, a different perspective or lifestyle, or when we’re not the smartest (or richest/funniest/most attractive/best dressed/most cultured/most important) person in the room. Since we experience social pain much the same as physical pain, safeguarding ourselves from perceived social and emotional threats or attacks is seemingly just as important – if not more so – than protecting ourselves from physical attacks. So, we show no fear, hide all emotions, never ask questions, and don’t accept help. It’s exhausting, and for a long time we’ve been told (and believed it!) that work is no place to be human; just do your job.

After a recent workshop, we were told by one participant that they would prefer “less reflection and emotional exercises.” But we are not robots – they’re coming, and we’re not them.  If we want to have any future in the workforce, we better find our humanity and make it a value proposition. Here’s how:

  • Cultivate a growth mindset – Growth mindset folks know that each experience is an opportunity to learn and enrich themselves and will therefore freely discuss mistakes and lessons learned, ask questions, and foster a similar culture. People with growth mindsets are much more comfortable being vulnerable. See our book recommendation below to learn more.
  • Embrace empathy – not to be confused with sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone else (based on your own judgments and life experiences), empathy requires that you recognize, understand, and respond to someone else’s feelings. The only way to do this is through human-to-human interactions, getting to know people as individuals, and showing care for their unique place in life. This can’t be one-sided, or it will seem suspicious and manipulative; in caring about others, you must also allow yourself to be cared about.
  • Lead with authenticity – quite simply, being the real you.  Not someone who you think a leader should be, or someone who you think others will like. People want to hire, work for, and work with a real person – not a leadership persona. This of course requires a basic understanding of who you are, and how you are perceived by others or self-awareness. The most effective ways to increase self-awareness are conscious self-observation and reflection, and regularly asking for and acting on feedback.
  • Influence the next generation – the behaviors and beliefs that allow vulnerability to be a strength need to be fostered and reinforced early on, so it comes more naturally to the next generation. Influence your kids, nieces, and nephews, brothers, and sisters, youth intramural teams, boy and girl scout troops, students, etc. to be kind, sincere, supportive, generous, and grateful.
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