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Leading Human Beings, Not Human Doings - Bonar Institute for Purposeful Leadership

So much focus in business goes to action, specifically swift and decisive action. Think about common business phraseology such as “going the extra mile”, “hitting the ground running”, “playing hardball”, “going above and beyond”, or “stepping up to the plate”. Each carries a sense of intensity (even some aggression), implies preparedness and the intention to win.

Why is it, then, that in business, leaders often forget that human beings are the point of business? I take the sheer quantity of articles about leadership in each issue of Harvard Business Review (and like publications) as the rationale for asking the question. After all, customers, investors, employees, partners, and other stakeholders are people – not disembodied machines.

It follows that business performance is dependent on individual human beings’ performance, and here we enter the power of one where one size just does not fit all. In a world where the pace of business and life seems to be constantly accelerating, data-driven decision making and systems are a necessity, but it is a mistake for leaders to want to manage human beings in the same impersonal and systematic way things can be managed.

As a coach, I learned that human beings perform at their highest potential when:

  1. Work is meaningful for them. A company or leader cannot impose their definition of purpose on teams and people. Rather, much stands to be gained by letting individuals define what is purposeful and how to achieve a sense of purpose at work. After all, purpose is rooted in values and lived experience.
  1. Work offers the right level of challenge to each member of the team, individually. Tasks must be interesting enough and the tools and conditions for concentration, focus and creativity are available to carry out the work successfully. This may mean rethinking certain work structures such as job definitions, and the traditional and more siloed way of organizing work.
  1. The workplace is emotionally engaging. It is a psychologically safe place to be where individuals experience positive emotions such as care/compassion, trust, curiosity, flow or joy. Every member of a team plays a role in creating such a work environment, and leaders are key in creating and maintaining it.
  1. The demands of work are balanced so that human beings can be and are supported in taking care of their physical health through proper sleep, nutrition, and physical activity.

Being emotionally intelligent is more important than ever for leaders at every level of the organization. As trite as it may sound, it is sometimes necessary to slow down to accelerate the pace. It is in taking the time to (re)dial on building trust, common understanding and being their best self that leaders build teams that act and perform. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula, and it is achieved one interaction at a time.

Leaders must become attuned to singular drivers, talents and desires of each human being they work with and be agile in their conception of teamwork to empower and leverage individual potential. Despite technological advances and the general acceleration of business and life, we still live in a world powered by the one-on-one.

Acknowledgment: The title of this blog article and subsequent reflection is inspired by Ro Nwosu, an inspiring human being.

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