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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