Leadership’s Secret Heart

When I worked in Human Resources a million years ago, I privately wondered from time to time when I would be asked for my opinion of what we were doing and how we were doing it. I had the sense that there was a new world, an entirely different world out there, one where people were asked what they thought about their work, where changes were made, where innovation occurred. Even though I was very lucky about where I worked, had good managers to report to, and was satisfied with about 98% of my job, the truth is, there was another silent 2% side of me that wondered, “What if they asked?”

The world has changed, is changing, and now that question of possible changes and improvements is often viewed differently, even as a right and obligation. And, truth be told, I wish I had pushed harder in those days. But I felt vulnerable — like everybody does at first — in asking, “Gosh, why are we making this so hard? There’s an easier way.”


The secret heart of leadership is really asking, really being interested in the deeper, most fragile views of other people about how things could be better. Creating that safe conversation. We tend to think, in a very macho way, that people ought to just speak their truth. “By Gosh, they do in my team!” a manager may say. Except the truth is, people don’t — and even senior managers are often very careful when they face up the system. Years of carefulness make us unconscious of our contradictions. Nevertheless, the secret heart goes on. And to learn about it one must listen at a whole different level, in a very different way, a way that attends to the inner person, the inner world of intentions, feelings, half-formed thoughts and inarticulate desires — that yet mean something. Please don’t ask me what are the five steps to do this. It’s a matter of mindset, you know, of being personally larger than the highly imperfect rating systems within which you may be operating.

We’re not especially good at this work. It’s about tuning in to a channel that comes from a long way off in space — and sometimes discovering evidence of another life-form whose language we don’t yet understand. That’s the good stuff. We don’t have to compete with it, discount it. We just have to learn.

The truth is, I don’t know that we can make people harder, tougher, more aggressive, pointed and competitive about their ideas and then somehow assume we’ll get the best from folks. That’s a Silicon Valley fantasy. That world, that notion that if you can’t defend your idea in front of a cadre of domineering peers you don’t have a good one. It’s more like we need to listen to others with the very part of us that never has felt heard, the part we were hoping someone would find in us, validate, honor, affirm. Instead of telling people to be tough, maybe we ought to tell ourselves to learn to listen past toughness to the heart of another, and in that way actually learn the heart of leading from the inside out.

If you know how to listen in that way, then you understand a great secret about the work. If you don’t, maybe you are just one more person who wants the outcomes more than the community. Maybe you are someone who wants the stature of a physician but in the end really doesn’t like blood — which is what your job is about — and is life itself.


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  • This was beautifully written, I agree with this approach 100% and have used it in my own team – doing so allows for true success because it builds a relationship of people understanding each other, the company and how to reach goals together. When you compare groups managed differently in different companies you see and feel the difference. Thank you for this lovely insight.

  • Mila — Thank you so much for stopping by and your kind words. Yes, you can see and feel the differences between workplaces, and also in exchanges with different leaders in the same workplace. You are so right about that web of relationships among people who understand one another — which often reveals itself rather quickly — or not at all! Best to you!

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