Leaders aren’t heartless robots. They’re people too
I was watching old Simon Sinek videos – the interview he did on Good Life Project, and the discussion he had with Scott at Live Your Legend. For those who aren’t familiar with Simon’s work, he wrote a very famous book called Start with Why (which I haven’t read yet, but I’m dying to read; it’s just that I have too many books on my “must read” list and haven’t had enough time to absorb it all yet), and has a great TED talk that I highly suggest you check out. Basically, his main schtick is Leadership.
And although I find Simon’s perspective on Leadership extremely fascinating, and I strongly relate to the concepts that he shares, for some reason, this time as he was talking, some pieces that have been in my mind lately just clicked into place.
See, because I’m such a cheerleader for Positive Psychology, and mental health in general, when my organization decided to implement the Canadian standard on mental health, I got all excited and kept asking how can I help? until they finally created a Mental Health working group and brought me on board. Ok so it didn’t really go like that, and it’s totally not about me, but that’s how honoured and special I felt when they asked me to join.
I have to admit, that joining this group has been one of the things that has made me feel the most alive and engaged since I started working there. I LOVE this stuff. I eat this stuff for breakfast. I could focus on this stuff all day, every day. In fact, the most difficult part of being on that group is taming my enthusiasm so I don’t look like a complete weirdo at the meetings.
Curiously enough, the more meetings we have, and the more we get to know each other, I am beginning to feel more comfortable letting that weirdo out a little more.
So here’s what happened: We were having a really tough discussion. Things are bad at work right now – like seriously critical. Our organization is under so much pressure to deliver that the general perception (from our internal point of view) is that the big bosses don’t care at what cost it comes, shit’s gotta get done. Which means they don’t care about us. So in discussing “the people’s” concerns, someone asked the question: So what do we need from Senior Management? What would make people believe them when they say that mental health is a priority; that it IS important to them?
I raised my voice and said “Authenticity”. And they looked at me, confused.
Well, what do you mean, Mel?
So I said What if the President got up and started being real with us? What if he actually said “I don’t know what to do”? What if he shared how stressed HE’S feeling? It can’t be easy being up there; being the leader of this organization who, by all external accounts, is failing big time, so much so that the friggin Minister is butting in saying “WTF”.
They looked at me with wide eyes, like they couldn’t believe I would actually suggest this. Then they rolled their eyes.
Oh, the President would NEVER do that. They said, laughing.
But what if we provided a safe space for him to share that? I asked. Have you ever thought that maybe he would never talk like that because he KNOWS we would crucify him for being fallible? For being imperfect? For being human?
How difficult it must be for him to be in that position… I said. Where no matter what he says or does, he can’t win…
There was a sobering moment of quiet after that, before someone changed the subject to release the discomfort that my idea had generated. But as I think back on that moment, I also remember the time I wrote an e-mail to a VP who was leaving our organization. He was amazing… but it seemed like nobody took him seriously.
He was an astronaut.
When he first joined our organization, he was a celebrity. He was hugely popular at all the social activities within the organization. Everybody loved him. But when he shared his ideas for how we could do things differently, more efficiently, nobody took him seriously. They rolled their eyes. Oh these astronauts and their strange ideas. It’ll never fly here, they said.
And so I watched, as this brilliant, wonderfully kind and funny man came in with such joy and passion, ready to bring new ideas and make a positive impact in the health research world, constantly get beat up by everyone around him until one day, less than a year later, they announced that he was retiring.
And I thought that was the saddest day in our organization’s history. My heart was so broken for him, that in a moment of incredible empathy, I decided to write him an e-mail.
And I told him something like this:
You probably don’t know me, but I just wanted you to know that I’ve SEEN you. I’ve been paying attention to you. That even though you came here, and it looked like people weren’t ready to listen to what you had to say, I just want you to know that I HEARD you. I admire your leadership and you have truly inspired me. You are the kind of leader I want to model someday.
And then his executive assistant called me… He wants to see you.
I panicked so fiercely, I started to cry and it took me a good 15 minutes to calm down and gather the nerves to walk down to his office. In my mind, I had put him on such a high pedestal (no pun intended… you know, cause he’s an astronaut) that I had forgotten that this amazing man was still just a man. Just a person. Like you and me.
I don’t know what I was afraid of. It was completely irrational. But when I sat down in his office, I quickly realized that he just wanted to thank me, that my message had deeply touched him. And then he proceeded to give me the thought process behind his decision, and I could tell it was something he had rehearsed and told others as well. And so to show him that I could FEEL his true reasoning, I said I know. I’ve seen you the last few weeks, and I could tell that you were struggling with something. And he looked at me, surprised. He smiled at me curiously, and I knew that the message I was trying to tell him had gotten through. After that moment, we spent the next 15 minutes talking about all the amazingly fun adventures he was going to go on in his retirement.
You must understand, astronauts aren’t like other people. When you’ve seen the world for the pale blue dot that it really is, in an endlessly vast universe, your perspective on life is forever changed. This man’s idea of retirement meant going rock climbing with his retired NASA (or CSA in Canada) buddies and exploring caves with his adult children. And as he spoke, I was just happy to see the light come back to his eyes once more.
So that’s why I feel so deeply saddened for my organization’s President (who suspiciously hasn’t exactly been visible around the halls these past few months). We spend all our time complaining about the wrong that is being done to us, by our managers, and senior managers, and we are so quick to blame them. But we just find ourselves in this Mexican standoff where on the one side there’s the angry mob that is the staff, and the other is Senior Management making big cold, heartless decisions, and refusing to “look weak” by explaining WHY they’re making those decisions.
But someone’s gotta cave at some point. We can’t go on like this forever.
So I’ve decided that I will take every possible opportunity to get involved with this Mental Health group, and advocate for ALL employees to have a safe environment where they can share without fear of judgement. And that includes Senior Management. Because they’re people too. They experience stress in the same way that we do. They are just as susceptible to anxiety and depression as we are. They deserve just as much compassion as my colleagues do.
THAT, I think, is what Simon Sinek talks about, when he advocates for true Leadership.
What do you think would happen if someone went up to a senior manager and asked them Are you ok?