Category Archives: Below the Line

Capturing the Human Spirit

Leadership is a 100 percent human undertaking. Systems are populated by people. Policies are embraced or rejected by people. Plans are enacted or ignored by people.  And because of this, effective leadership hinges on a leader’s ability to access the talent, enhance the capacity, and develop the potential of people.

But what are these human beings that leaders are obliged to work with?

At its most basic, humanity encompasses both tangible/physical and non-tangible/spiritual aspects. Leaders tend to focus almost exclusively on the former, particularly as they pertain to the professional performance of employees. In many ways this is understandable. One-dimensional abstractions like “welders” or “programmers” are far easier to supervise than flesh-and-blood human beings with shaky marriages, sick kids, and unrealized aspirations.

And yet the idea that employees—or leaders themselves, for that matter—are capable of checking their humanity at the workplace door is as preposterous as it is counterproductive. Leaders might be drawn to the idea of single-purpose “workers,” but human beings are what they will always get. As Anita Roddick, founder of one of the largest cosmetics franchises in the world, once said, “We were searching for employees, but people showed up instead.”

People are complex, filled with nuances and contradictions that can be challenging and – quite frankly – more than a little frustrating to negotiate. And yet the very humanity that we so often seek to avoid holds within it the seeds of true collective excellence.

Deep down, we all know that truly great organizations are never built by workers merely following orders or striving after external bonuses and perks.

It’s true that a certain level of compliance can be bought, obedience compelled, and results simply required of employees. But we intuitively understand, from our own experience if nothing else, that people’s best comes only when their imagination, heart and spirit are truly committed to an enterprise.

W. Edwards Deming once declared that excellence is 100 percent voluntary. Excellence, he seemed to suggest, is choice reserved for each individual employee, a gift that may be freely given, but can never be demanded.

Unlocking the power of this voluntary commitment and dedication requires the cultivation a working environment which supports and develops the whole person— and not just those portions upon which professional performance is imagined to depend.

Only in this way can leaders hope to capture the human spirit which is the basis of all true excellence. And building this environment is the essence of true leadership.

What We Believe, What We Think We Believe (3 of 3)

The first part in this series introduced the concept of the espoused theories we consciously believe in and the theories-in-use that actually determine our choices and behavior. The second installment explored how it is not only possible, but likely for there to be differences between those two sets of theories. But what can be done… Continue Reading

What We Believe, What We Think We Believe (2 of 3)

The first part in this series introduced the idea of espoused theories and theories in use. It also raised the possibility that the principles each of us consciously support might not be what are actually shaping our behavior and decisions. But what does this look like in practice? In our consulting work we were once… Continue Reading

What We Believe, What We Think We Believe (1 of 3)

Assessing minute-by-minute choices is a key aspect of the discipline of reflective leadership. But building a true picture of how we act turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Part of the difficulty stems from the way we think about our behavior. We all act in accordance with mental “maps” of what we believe to be… Continue Reading

The Humanity of Employees? 10 Propositions for Reflection

Thinking impacts behavior. This is true in all aspects of life, but its effects are particularly pronounced in leadership thinking about employees, where expectations and assumptions can create self-fulfilling prophesies — for both the better and the worse. Douglas McGregor, former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, was one of the first business… Continue Reading

Above the Line, Below the Line (Part 2 of 2)

Last week we explored the relationship between the above-the-line world of external actions, behaviors, and choices, and the below-the-line world of internal assumptions, beliefs, and values. The former, we suggested, invariably flow from the latter. Our actions are necessarily driven by our mental models and emotions. Our choices are shaped by the ideals and paradigms… Continue Reading

Above the Line, Below the Line (Part 1 of 2)

For years our seminars included an exercise that asked participants to think of the best listener they had ever known and describe what made that person so special. Most responses centered on techniques like maintaining eye contact, asking clarifying questions, and mirroring body language. But invariably someone would raise their hand and say that what… Continue Reading

Unity, Discord, and the Reality of Human Nature

If it is in fact true that organizational performance rises with growing levels of agreement, collaboration, reciprocity and shared vision, why do leaders accept significant (and largely avoidable) costs of disunity?  Much has to do with widespread below-the-line beliefs that disunity is just the way things are. “It’s human nature,” clients have again and again… Continue Reading

Communication: What Do You Believe?

“In no other area have intelligent men and women worked harder or with greater dedication than…on improving communications in our organizations. Yet communications has proved as elusive as the Unicorn.” These words are as true today as they were in 1973 when Peter Drucker first wrote them. Communication is an area in which many organizations… Continue Reading

© Copyright 1999-2012 Management Associates. All rights reserved.