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Let Them Be Human: How to Find (and Keep) the Leaders of Tomorrow


Let Them Be Human: How to Find (and Keep) the Leaders of Tomorrow

by Nigel Girling

Director of Programmes: Leadership & Management at Babington Group, partner of IDG

For decades, we’ve been teaching people to ‘manage’ and how to be in charge of things. We’ve focused much of our energy and management attention on all those things we refer to as the ‘hard’ stuff… Targets, data, strategy, plans, charts, graphs, spreadsheets, milestones, reviews… Oh, we do so love all that management stuff!

It looks important, smells important, gets taken very seriously as important and so by golly it must be important. And the people who do it seem important too. You know, managers, directors, CEOs. Suits. …and anyway, look how busy we all are… Because busy is good, right? That’s why they call it a busy-ness! Makes us all look industrious, conscientious, dedicated, hard-working and all those other admirable things.


What if all that is just so much window-dressing? What if we are focusing on these things largely to avoid doing the really difficult stuff? You know, the people stuff. The stuff we call ‘soft’.

What if we are focusing all that energy on the things that we can control, things we can track, things we can easily measure, while spending much less time on the stuff that actually causes the performance and results? What if all those meetings are mostly about hiding and those reports about telling each other that everything is ok… when it so often isn’t.

For the great majority of organisations, the thing that makes by far the greatest single difference to their performance is their people, and specifically:

  • How engaged they are
  • How innovative and creative they are
  • How committed and motivated they are
  • How talented they are
  • How reflective they are

I suggest that those things tend to be the result of engaging leadership, rather than good management.

Professor Richard Boyatzis and many others have stated that the latest research and thinking from neuroscience shows us that our brains are hard-wired in two relevant ways. The analytical ‘task positive’ network in our brain which focuses on the ‘hard’ stuff and the other more emotionally connected and human ‘social’ network which deals with the ‘soft’ stuff. These two networks are largely discrete.

We also now realise that, while we are focused on analytical ‘hard’ activities such as finance, data, targets and the like, our human social brain is temporarily suppressed. It also works the other way around, of course. But given that the engagement and impact of our people tends to be shaped largely by their relationship with their leaders and their work, we can reasonably surmise that the human ‘social’ network has a very significant effect… And we spend a huge proportion of our time and our managers’ time exhorting them to spend their day in the ‘task positive’ area of the brain.

It’s not hard to see how that might be a big problem for us if we want to create engaging leadership, to unleash creativity and to attract, nurture and retain talented people.

So how will we find and nurture the leaders of the future?

That’s a very complex and multi-faceted challenge, but there are a few things we might be able to do quite quickly:

  1. Start testing for emotional & social intelligence as well as (or maybe even instead of) cognitive intelligence.
  2. Value, reward and promote those with strong ‘soft’ skills.
  3. Put people-related topics at the head of the agenda for management meetings, before we start talking about data and results.
  4. Shift our focus on targets and performance indicators to include ‘people-results’ such as capability enhancement, delivery of mentoring, attraction of talent, progression of people within the organisation and creativity.

    While there is much more to do to alter and shape the culture of our organisations to become more human (and by that I don’t mean ‘human resources’… something which is often much more about ‘resources’ than it is about ‘human’) and more engaging and inspiring to our brightest minds, these simple things could be achieved within days.

    We mustn’t though confuse action with progress… that’s how, after all, we got into this position in the first place as our opening paragraphs indicated. This isn’t about ticking the actions off a list and reverting to type. So many initiatives have foundered on those rocks over the years.

    This is a mind-set shift, re-establishing our view of what is most important so that we see, believe and demonstrate that people matter more than data and that our future depends on our ability to optimize the opportunity, creativity and impact of our people.

    Especially the ones we see as leaders now and in the future, for they will be the ones who steer this ship and make this shift.

    Spot them. Nurture them. Develop and inspire them. But let them be human.

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