Many times on this blog, in interviews and in my speeches, I talk about the three “revelations” that have transformed my thinking of what it means to be a leader.
Of the three, the one that always generates the most response is when I talk about seeing another person as “someone’s precious child.” It resonates deeply because it’s a very relatable metaphor that makes you stop and think about how we should view and treat the person next to us.
Even those who have had a dysfunctional relationship with their parents understand – and most likely even crave – the sense of love and security of being treated as a precious child.
The sense of feeling like you matter.
At the end of the day, this is what we all crave. Mattering is one of the most basic human needs, beyond food and shelter. And that is why, at its core, Truly Human Leadership is about making sure those people you encounter in life know who they are and what they do matters. I have seen on my journey that there are incredible similarities between parenting and leadership. Both are a profound responsibility and a privilege.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently released a new book titled How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. I frequently read his column, so I watched a few interviews he gave around the book’s release. I was heartened to see so much alignment of his message with what we teach at Barry-Wehmiller and what we’re trying to share with the world.
Here’s a quote from a column David wrote introducing his book:
People want to connect. Above almost any other need, human beings long to have another person look into their faces with love and acceptance. The issue is that we lack practical knowledge about how to give one another the attention we crave. Some days it seems like we have intentionally built a society that gives people little guidance on how to perform the most important activities of life…
I often find myself interviewing people who tell me they feel unseen and disrespected: Black people feeling that the systemic inequities that afflict their daily experiences are not understood by whites, people who live in rural areas feeling they are overlooked by coastal elites, people across political divides staring at one another with angry incomprehension, depressed young people who feel misunderstood by their parents and everyone else, husbands and wives who realize that the person who should know them best actually has no clue about who they are.
David goes on to explain that he spent four years writing his book, because he wanted it to be practical. He wanted to write a book that was a guide to “teach people how to understand others, how to make them feel respected, valued and understood.”
This journey mirrors ours at Barry-Wehmiller. It is why we created our own internal Barry-Wehmiller University. We also felt like our society gives little guidance on basic skills that help others feel as if they matter. It is certainly not taught in schools or universities.
David goes on to say in his column:
I wanted to learn these skills for utilitarian reasons. If I’m going to work with someone, I don’t just want to see his superficial technical abilities. I want to understand him more deeply — to know whether he is calm in a crisis, comfortable with uncertainty or generous to colleagues.
I wanted to learn these skills for moral reasons. If I can shine positive attention on others, I can help them to blossom. If I see potential in others, they may come to see potential in themselves. True understanding is one of the most generous gifts any of us can give to another.
Finally, I wanted to learn these skills for reasons of national survival. We evolved to live with small bands of people like ourselves. Now we live in wonderfully diverse societies, but our social skills are inadequate for the divisions that exist. We live in a brutalizing time.
We wanted Barry-Wehmiller to be built on principles of caring, so we needed to teach the skills of caring. We needed to train our leaders to get beyond traditional “management” that conditions us to view people as functions to get them to do what we want so we can be successful, not because we care about them.
And, like I wrote above, thinking of the person next to us as someone’s precious child helps to change that dynamic. When we recognize their inherent dignity and humanity, they are not a function or a role. They are a person, deserving of the same care I have for my own child and deserving to receive that care from others.
We also needed to teach our leaders to recognize and celebrate the people within their span of care. In business, we are quick to let people know what they did wrong. As I’ve said many times, we’re all familiar with this sentiment: “I got 10 things right and never heard a word and got one thing wrong and I got my ass chewed out.”
Traditional management teaches us to look for the errors or exceptions, to look for opportunities to improve. When challenged with a new way of thinking -- to focus on catching people doing things right -- most managers respond, “Why would I thank them for doing their job? That’s what they are paid to do.” But that perspective, again, reduces a person to a function, not someone’s precious child.
As parents, we learn that you need to catch your children doing things right five times more than you suggest things they could do better or it is hard for them to hear ways to improve. Adults are the same and therefore the “art” of thoughtful recognition and celebration are critical leadership skills.
And, like David, we also realized that empathetic listening is the greatest of all human skills. As he said in his column, “People are not as clear as they think they are, and we’re not as good at listening as we think we are.”
I've written quite often about the transformative effect of our foundational “Listen Like a Leader” course on our team members. The most consistent feedback we get from our team members after they've taken the class is that it changed their lives. I've seen people cry as they share how the course saved their marriage. And I know it is the answer to many issues our society is facing.
Listening is the most important thing we, as humans, can do for one another. It shows the person you are listening to that they matter. It honors their dignity. When done with the intent to not merely get the information you need but rather to meet the needs of the other person and hear how he or she is feeling, listening allows us to connect and better understand each other.
It’s the key to all meaningful relationships as it shows that you respect and care for the person you’re hearing. And its key to helping the people David said he meets that feel unseen or disrespected feel like they matter.
“Be a loud listener,” David wrote. “When another person is talking, you want to be listening so actively you’re burning calories.”
At Barry-Wehmiller, we measure success by the way we touch the lives of others. All of the principles of Truly Human Leadership we try to model and teach within our company and our efforts to spread this message of mattering outside our company are part of our idea of success. You could almost say building a better world is one of our KPIs!
We want to be a force against the “brutalizing time,” as David calls it. We do believe Truly Human Leadership can heal divisions and help people feel seen.
So, David Brooks, we’re glad to have you on board this journey. If you’d ever like to compare notes or even take one of our “Listen Like a Leader” classes, we’d love to have you.
It’s going to take a lot of voices singing in harmony to change the tune of the world around us.