Why do leaders forget they are human?

Three SCNetwork members discuss Vince Brewerton’s presentation

Why do leaders forget they are human?

Jan van der Hoop: Vince Brewerton’s comments about the “PAID reality” (findings that leaders are “pressured, always on, information overloaded, and distracted”) certainly rings true. Moreover, I believe it is an accurate description of most of us — distracted, detached, disturbed and rarely “fully conscious and present.”

And I agree with his contention that any interruption in this cycle — at work, at least — needs to be leader-led. It is up to leaders to model the kinds of behaviours and “ways of being” that will lead to deeper and more fulfilling relationships, more meaningful communication, and strengthening the fabric of organizational culture.

But to claim “mindfulness, selflessness and compassion” as the pre-eminent leadership competencies for the 21st century is — I think — a little pretentious. In my experience, they have always been and always will be the hallmarks of engaging leaders.

There’s nothing attractive or inspiring in a manager who is distracted, self-absorbed or frenetic.

And I believe the challenge Brewerton described is an eternal one that has existed through the ages, because it is an essentially human challenge and an immutable truth — self-awareness must by necessity precede the ability to lead ourselves, which precedes our ability to understand others, which precedes our ability to effectively lead others.

And there, unfortunately, sits the inconvenient core of it: Most of us, frankly, aren’t all that self-aware. To go there requires time, patience, curiosity and the willingness to be really uncomfortable.

Which is why most leadership development programs in organizations and universities don’t go there. Who wants to be uncomfortable?

So we keep promoting people and papering over the cracks, and then wonder why things get worse.

Paul Pittman: The trouble with people is we are all different. The trouble with science is it thinks we’re not.

When I hear “Our conclusions are based on science,” I immediately think of HR folks having to deal with gut reactions. I wonder if we should be teaching this stuff to the led, as well as the leaders.

Brewerton proposed that we need to teach ourselves to be “truly human.” This should have read “How to be truly human which in its many forms often comes broken and busted, tainted with selfishness, paranoia and doubt.”

Being nice to people doesn’t always cure these failings but “truly human” does set the standard of how you expect to be treated in return and how folks should behave toward each other. It’s not authentic but, hey, that’s what being human often is.

That’s harsh I know, but I worry that it’s an overly simplistic and a premature reaction to the emerging workplace.

“Read these instructions and instantly become a leader.” After 30 years, I’m still a novice but apparently it is too complicated now for any single person to lead and we need to share that role. I don’t buy that — it has always been tough.

Negotiators know to put themselves in the other person’s shoes to achieve mutually agreeable outcomes. This is not new but, nonetheless, well-worth revisiting when planning client or employee meetings.

Ego, too, must be removed from leadership — I’m not sure about that either. Strong egos are indistinguishable from high levels of confidence. Confidence gets things done but I agree doing so humbly and collaboratively is the best way.

Our grandparents would often say, “We did it for the company.” Is that a response based on loyalty? What is the consideration for young people to do that today? 

Mindfulness is a wonderful technique with numerous benefits such as less stress, better general health and the avoidance of not shooting from the hip.

So, Jan, we can unpack Brewerton’s premise and poke holes in the components all day long but, taken together, it might be just the treatment for the modern, generationally stretched, anxious, stressed and politically constrained manager.

Sandi Channing: Leadership with a wellness focus — so refreshing.

A presentation acknowledging the pressures leaders face and telling us that the first step to good leadership is self-care.

Get ourselves in the right frame of mind and only then can we be effective leaders — a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for leadership. 

Brewerton outlined the three critical leadership competencies for the 21st century — mindfulness, selflessness and compassion.  Of the three, mindfulness is the one he spent the most time on.

Basically, before we can be great leaders, we need to be focused, present and aware of how we’re feeling. That’s no small task given the demands, competing priorities, distractions and workload leaders face. 

Brewerton spoke of the PAID reality, which leads to an attention deficit trait where you can’t pay attention to what you should — 47 per cent of our minds wander involuntarily, which reduces our effectiveness.

So far — like everyone else in the audience — I can relate.

Brewerton understands that the PAID reality is here to stay, and he focuses on how to manage ourselves in this environment with a wellness approach. The ABCD exercise trains us to clear our minds of the clutter so we may be more mindful, leading to better decisions, work-life balance, and job satisfaction.

Having completed a couple of mindful exercises over the past few days, I’m a believer.  While it takes time to retrain the brain, at this point, I like the way it centres me and clears my mind — an oasis among the demands.

Brewerton then moves on to selflessness, which speaks to not letting our egotistic impulses rule and to see the bigger picture. Paul, I agree that having a strong sense of confidence can be indistinguishable from a strong ego.

The danger is when a leader has a low sense of confidence and her constant need for validation guides her decisions and relationships. Her ego becomes the guiding principle for her decisions and actions.

Those of us who have worked for such a person know how detrimental that is to engagement, morale and outcomes. Confident leaders are more prone to being selfless, thereby giving accolades to their teams and building the confidence of those around them.

The last competency is compassion which, when combined with wisdom, is the sweet spot. 

This competency focuses on being kind and caring for employees, but in a way that makes good business sense. There’s nothing new with this one but given the labour crunch, it will be critical.  

All in all, it was an interesting presentation with a leadership approach that will help in these dynamic, turbulent, challenging and exciting times — now and in the future. 

Van der Hoop: Yep, I agree. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether these expressions of leadership are cutting-edge, new discoveries, or eternal truths dressed up for the next generation to learn again for the first time.

They do encapsulate in many respects the essence of an evolved, healthy, engaging human — and they are traits and practices we would all do well to build into our daily choices.

I truly believe the world would be better for it.

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