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.