Getting at the Heart of Leadership

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”~  His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

I was thinking the other day about how easy it is, on first embarking on the leadership road to pack our authority and our sense of self-importance but leave little room in the bag for what it really takes to lead well ~ heart.

For the fledgling leader it’s an easy mistake to make.  As fledglings, we often expect little from others, except maybe obedience.

I like to think that most of us grow out of it.  Some people though, fledgling and seasoned alike, treat the leadership role like a game of monopoly. They have a strategy and goals. They deal in only that which they can hold in their hand or see on the bottom line.  They buy and sell, trade and bargain. They strive to pass GO as often as possible so they can collect their $200 regularly.  Their focus is singular, their intent only to finish the game with the greatest number of assets.

It is possible that these leaders believe their legacy will come from asset gathering alone.  There are after all, some very wealthy and powerful people who have amassed their fortunes in just that way.  So why bother to mess it up with emotion?

Well, being a simple kind of person, I think the answer to that is simply that human beings are emotional creatures.  And, if we expect them to bring all of themselves to work and dedicate their energies to the success of our enterprises, we must also care about them.

Witness the case of Cecelia Ingraham.

Ms Ingraham worked as an Administrative Assistant for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey.  She is also a mother whose teenaged daughter died.  That kind of grief is unimaginable for most of us.

Her co-workers, although initially sympathetic, became uncomfortable around her because she talked about her daughter constantly, hung the girl’s ballet shoes in her cubicle and displayed her child’s photograph on her desk.  Someone complained to the boss that Ms Ingraham’s behaviour was becoming disruptive, interfering with the work.

The story goes down hill from here, the bottom line of which is this.  Ms Ingraham was told to remove the mementos of her daughter from her workstation; stop talking about her and, in fact, pretend that she had never existed.

There is more to this story, the outcome of which produced no winners at all.  Money was no doubt spent in both accusing and defending.  The twelve years of experience and the time Ms Ingraham spent learning and contributing to the company prior to her daughter’s death were lost.  And there are others costs.  Those who continue to work for this company will by now get the message that perhaps its best to leave part of themselves in a safe place at home.  There is, after all no empathy waiting for them at work and no help when they really need it.

As Glenn Holland put it in Mr. Holland’s Opus,Music is not just notes on a page”.  Similarly leadership is not just about being in charge or numbers on a balance sheet.

So, if you are new leader by all means pack your self-confidence; be aware of, and use your authority but please leave plenty of room for your heart.  If you are to be truly successful, you will need it.  And so will everyone else.

What do you think?



Filed under building awareness, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values

15 responses to “Getting at the Heart of Leadership

  1. Pingback: » Is this How to Handle the Death of an Employee’s Child

  2. Lawrence "Larry" Berezin

    Wonderful, poignant article. The Director at this huge NJ drug company engaged in the common practice of “Fast food leadership.” It is served quickly, but leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

    I’m familiar with the legal case. I’d like to send your post to the Director.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thank you, Larry. I would be happy for you to send this to the Director. One of the things I hope to do in this blog is to provide food for thought to those whose experience and culture does not include the possibility that there are some quite significant costs associated with failing to care for the people who work in their organizations.
      While I don’t presume to know all of the details of this case, my hunch is that if the company had chosen to spend its money on providing some practical help and counselling to Ms Ingraham instead of on court and turnover costs, the outcome would have been more positive, as would the company’s reputation.

  3. Gwyn,
    Thanks so much for this important post.
    We can’t write enough about the need for heart in leadership (and corporate policies and practices). I tweeted about this NJ pharma story earlier this week. It really saddened me. To me this is abject failure of leadership and certainly none with heart. The quote by the Dalai Lama is one of my favorites and operates as a North Star for me.
    Thx again,

    • Gwyn Teatro

      With all of the talk about the importance of caring for and *engaging* employees, it appears there remain many organizations who fail to connect the well-being of their workforces with their greater potential for sustaining healthy and successful enterprises over time.
      That makes the work you do so critical. Thank you.

  4. Lawrence "Larry" Berezin

    I wholeheartedly agree. The defense costs would have been better spent on helping a loyal employee.

  5. Great post! Such an important topic. Ms Ingraham’s experience is all too common. I think that leaders who remember that their employees are human beings, and treat them accordingly, will be rewarded with a much more positive and productive workplace.

    Wouldn’t it have been better for everyone if management could have said “How can we help you?” to her instead of telling her to remove the mementos of her daughter? How about if they had spoken to the employees who complained about her “disruptive” behaviour instead of simply acting on their complaint?

    When personal issues are handled in this way, the result will be high levels of dissatisfaction and employee turnover, neither of which is good for the bottom line (if you want to look at it from a purely practical standpoint).

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Leslie, Yup, I share your sentiments. a well placed “How can we help you?” and a concrete plan to actually carry out the help might very well have done a great deal of good.
      Thanks for weighing in 🙂

  6. Hi Gwyn,

    Wonderful post! Really has me pondering just what her manager *should* have done in response to the employee complaints, short of referring her to HR or bringing in a group counselor.

    I actually had a great friend and colleague suffer the loss of her only child a few years ago. During the horrid months after, we co-workers wrapped her in our unconditional love and kindness both inside and outside of the office. It was heart-wrenching. But one day – after a couple months had gone by – I heard another colleague say behind her back that it was time for her to get over it and move on.

    Needless to say, I was stunned! I later learned there was an undercurrent among employees throughout the office who felt the same way. They said they were sorry 10 times, they were ready to move on and they wanted her to stop bringing it into the office. They were, simply, sick of it. Nice.

    Anyway, it occurs to me that a manager here is in a really tough spot. A manager can have all the heart and empathy in the world, only to have direct reports threatening to go to HR because the situation is interfering with their ability to get their jobs done.

    So, what *should* the manager have done? I’d love to hear you and your readers weigh in on this.

    You’ll be happy to know this friend, whom I love today, was high enough and well-regarded enough in the company for this situation not to have any lasting impact on her, career-wise. Frankly, no one really dared go to HR. And I’m also happy to say she has healed, retired and started an organization in her child’s name to help other children in need.

    Sadly, others in her situation are not so fortunate!

    Jenifer Olson @jenajean

  7. Poignant article. I used this in one of my mid-week seminars to “empower’ my employees. Thank yo so much!

  8. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Jenifer,

    Thank you for taking the time to tell your story and for getting me to think more about this particular issue.

    First, in my observation and experience, grieving is a very personal and solitary thing. When we suffer a loss such as Ms Ingraham and your friend did, the world ceases to be as we have always known it. Our challenge in those times is to find a new kind of normal, one that has renewed purpose and meaning. This can take a long time and our friends and colleagues are only prepared to go so far in that journey with us. Eventually, they have to let go so they can get on with their own lives and focus on their own challenges. In many cases, they are ready to do this well before the bereaved person feels ready to strike out on her own again and this can create difficulties. Friends don’t like to see us suffer but they can’t erase the pain or shorten the process for us.

    To be clear, it is not the company’s or anyone else’s job to “take care” of us in these, or any other times for that matter. However, in my view it is the company’s job to “care about” us enough to recognize when we need help and to have the resources and mechanisms available to provide it.

    In Ms Ingraham’s case, her manager missed the boat by a mile. There were a number of things he might have done to help. For one thing, as Ms Ingraham was obviously not coping very well, he could have asked her what she needed to help her do so. If he was unaware of corporate policies around such issues, he might have consulted with someone in the company who could advise him and prepare a number of options for Ms Ingraham to consider with respect to dealing with her grief in a way that worked for her and at the same time minimized the impact on others.

    Finally, a Manager’s willingness to care (and ability to help) is either aided or impeded by the overall culture and values of the larger organization. If there are few structures in place that encourage the creation of a caring environment then the job of a caring manager is that much harder to carry out. However, even if this is the case in this particular company, a good manager will always listen and seek to understand before coming to judgment.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts here.

  9. Pingback: Is this How to Handle the Death of an Employee's Child? | Lawrence M. Berezin, Esquire

  10. Pingback: Is this How to Handle the Death of an Employee’s Child? | Larry the N.J. Lawyer's Cogitations

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