Why We Should Humanize Our Leaders

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Many of us tend to see our leaders as heroes or villains. We love them or hate them, idolize or demonize them, in much the same way as the press portrays our presidents. But this conception of leaders as larger than life, as the organization’s Big Brain, undermines leaders and followers alike. It puts tremendous stress on leaders, who know they can never measure up. The result? Frustration and workaholism—or the arrogance of someone who has begun to believe this fantasy of omnipotence. Both responses are psychologically corrosive.

This impossible ideal makes it all too easy to snipe at a leader’s “failures” or “shortcomings.” It also infantilizes workers, putting them in the role of children who must depend on the adult leaders. The leader-associate relationship is not adult-child, but adult-adult. Employees must shoulder more responsibility and independence, and leaders must step down from their pedestals.

But humanizing is a tricky task. We expect both too much and too little of our leaders. On the one hand, we must learn to be more forgiving and gentle, to allow our leaders to be human rather than heroic. We have to recognize that leaders often face dilemmas that pit important interests and parties against one another and that lack a single clear answer. In such cases, decisions can involve painful, even wrenching, tradeoffs.

Yet even as we humanize leaders, we must hold them to new and higher standards. Leaders must share power and information. They must speak candidly, listen carefully and “walk their talk.” Their personalities get magnified and projected onto their organization, and so they must work to be more aware of their inner lives. Perhaps the most difficult—they must be willing to admit mistakes, to say they don’t know, to express their feelings and to ask for help.

But above all, leaders must cultivate healthy adult-adult relationships. Imagine the freedom it would give leaders to be full human beings at work and the liberation it would give their colleagues, who would be working for a healthy, imperfect person – just like the rest of us.

Here are some things I’ve learned about “human” leaders:

View your boss as a whole human being – with aspirations and ambitions, vulnerabilities and imperfections, families and hobbies. When they do something stupid, give them the benefit of the doubt. They are probably having a bad day just like the rest of us.

Watch out for “all or nothing thinking.” Some of us see the world in black and white and tend to be too judgmental. If somebody does something wrong, we are quick to judge their whole character instead of the specific behavior in question.

Watch how your mind influences your emotional reactions.

Be candid and courageous when your boss does things that sabotage him or undermine others. Most bosses I have found are open to feedback if you choose your words and the time properly. They may even give you points for being direct and confident.

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