Why can’t leaders be human?

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Here’s a relatively amazing quote/context to consider work from, courtesy of this article:

Leadership is about connection. People will only follow you, work hard for you, create and risk and sacrifice for you, if they feel connected to you. So here’s my question: Will anyone ever be able to truly connect with you, really trust you, honestly give you their all, if you only reveal to them the parts of you that you think will impress them? How long do you think you can keep that up? How long before they become disillusioned?

Peter Bregman

I have been writing about leadership in some form or fashion for over five years now. I once wrote a post that went deep on 23 different ways to contextualize leadership. (It’s good. You should read it.) In the entire history of doing all this stuff and thinking about leadership and writing down different thoughts on it, I don’t know if I have ever encountered a more true quote about what leadership — and, really, what work and life — is than the above.

So how did we get to this spot?

This one is relatively easy. Most of work is about:

At that intersection a lot of different shit happens. №1 is usually “confuse busy and productive.” Busy gets you “Well, he/she must be competent, because people keep giving him/her work!” and “Oh, if they’re slammed with tasks, they’re relevant and we need them here!” True productivity is often done in silence and without flexing your bullshit. That doesn’t help people psychologically as much as being busy. Plus: busy makes you feel high.

The other thing at this intersection? You have to appear strong. As a result, even though failure is commonplace in most organizations, we are never supposed to discuss failure in any semi-regular context. Many employees fear failure and fear not being good enough (I have, hundreds of times), but they are never supposed to actually discuss it. And when someone does admit a failing, or does reference being wrong, usually it’s a demerit. It docks them, and de-accelerates their career — when in fact it should do the exact opposite.

What’s the impact on leadership?

Lots of flexing bullshit, to the point that the top ranks of a company resemble a lot of Instagram drama. Every meeting is some VP being heralded for shepherding a project or hitting a growth number, while the other VPs secretly grouse in the corner and wait for their turn, all the while plotting how to undercut this revered guy’s silo. Welcome to the era of disengagement, fuckface. We ain’t gonna fix it with software. Sorry!

Also, most organizations of the for-profit variety need sales to drive revenue. That’s usually the model. The guys that sell thus become revered. Most models of successful selling also purport that you can never show weakness or discuss failure. So then those guys rise up in a company and the whole thing is a bigger shit show than it would be normally. “But we hire for emotional intelligence and soft skills,” someone meows. No you don’t. Most places reward the target-hitter, and anyone with emotional intelligence is exposed on a mountaintop almost from onboarding.

Go back to the above quote

Let’s say you had a friend and all they did was tell you how amazing and great they were and everything in their lives was. (So, basically, 92 percent of the people you know on social media. Got it.) How cool is this relationship, honestly? Do you feel you know them? Without a context for what hurts, it’s hard to really know a person. You can know them in superficial terms and maybe even feel close to them, but are you really connected if everything is “Look at me slaying dragons, bro?” I don’t think so.

Now imagine if that same person was your boss. Actually, take the most “My life is amazing” person you know from afar on social and pretend they were your boss. How long do you envision remaining an employee at that spot? Six weeks? 12 weeks? A few more weeks? Maybe a year?

If you work for someone who just flexes left and right about their amazing nature and all the numbers they hit, that sucks and gets tedious real fast. I’ve had 2–3 bosses like that. Usually I either get shit-canned or leave myself, and always within the year. It’s not leadership. It’s just like having some moron with no self-awareness get to dictate what you work on. Was this the great promise of us evolving from apes?

Can we get better?

Yes and no. Organizations will always want to discuss their accomplishments, and that occurs at the company-wide level and the individual level to boot. So it’s not going to change anytime soon, or fast.

I proposed once having a “Failure Series” at a job. Every Friday, a leader speaks for five minutes on something he/she messed up. I got laughed out of the room when I proposed this. I personally think it would humanize leaders but, oh well. No time! Gotta report those sales prospects, ya know?

So no, it’s not changing fast. But if individual leaders think about their connection to their teams, it can change at a micro-level, sure. See also: psychological safety, or broader notions of inclusion.

Written by

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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