Leadership by Actual Humans – Imagine the Possibilities!

I recently had the pleasure of engaging in a conversation about “Leading by Listening.” The need for better, stronger, more effective, less damaging communication (of which listening skills are a key component) has been pretty popular over the last several years, and there are a lot of interesting perspectives on the “best practices” on how we, as leaders and as people engage in communication. And there’s no question that we have a communication crisis in our world.

I believe a bigger contributing factor to the communication gap is that there is an (almost) insurmountable chasm between the two primary ways “Leadership” is framed.

Do you define a leader as an “All-knowing deity”?  Or do you see a leader as “The ultimate accountability holder”?  Those are incredibly different perspectives, and better listening skills aren’t going to fix it. If you think you know it all (or you believe you’re required to maintain that pretense as part of your role), you of course won’t be asking what anyone else thinks, because their input is irrelevant to that worldview. So it’s really no surprise that in the first scenario these “leaders” don’t actually listen, no matter what fancy words they spout about “open-door policies” and all the rest of the things they think they’re supposed to say because they read about them in some Forbes or John Maxwell excerpt. In fact, they CANNOT listen – it might invalidate their carefully constructed house of cards, and everything will come crashing down.

I propose that the issue is not as simple as “learning how to listen”, although without a doubt there is always room for us to increase our listening skills and communication fluency in ALL directions of that cycle. Perhaps, though, as we’re shoring up the situation on that front, we also need to reframe the way we approach leadership. And this is bi-directional.

As leaders, we would be well-served to release the archetype of “All-Knowing, All-Seeing Deity in the Corner Officer”, for a zillion reasons. It sets us up for failure, for sure, because nobody IS infallible (“Welcome to humanity! Here are your imperfections! Do great things with them!”), and so when – not if – we get it wrong, how high of a pedestal shall we tumble from?  Depends on how high you built it in the first place, and if Leadership is akin to Godliness, then that’s a super long tumble. I hope you brought a parachute (and I don’t mean the golden kind that funds your kids’ college educations).  It damages trust, which is antithetical to successful business operations. It separates us from the people we most need connections with – our colleagues – because we must hide behind that false front (“Don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain!!”) And it creates an INSANE amount of pressure for the person sitting on that throne which by its very nature make you more likely to screw up. Goodbye Optimal Executive Function, hellllooooo ulcers, and catastrophic errors in judgement!

As those in the trenches, we are failing both ourselves AND those we entrust with the steering of the ship we’ve signed on to serve when we expect (or agree to) this image of leadership. This perspective presumes that only the Head Cheese has any worthy knowledge and that immediately shuts down creativity, collaboration, innovation, and productivity, all of which is bad for business – and even worse for our psyches as we marinate in this dysfunction.

When leaders see themselves as holding the ultimate accountability, they may still turn into tyrants – it for SURE happens – I know some of you have worked for those people, too! But at least in this paradigm, there is a chance, an opportunity for leaders to choose a better path, one of belonging, teamwork, and shared passion and growth. If I acknowledge I DO NOT have all the answers, and I’ve done a decent job of hiring smart, thoughtful humans, I can go to them with an open mind and heart, empowering us, together, to find the best (or at least a better) path to success.

When we change how we view “leadership”, we give ourselves permission to be human.

We’ve seen what people can do while fettered by limiting beliefs. What if we ditched that old, tired archetype and treated everyone as a functional, critical input-providing part of the team? Imagine the possibilities!


Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happiness Is Courage Inc., translates the science of happiness and well-being into actionable plans that get radically positive results. An enthusiastic positivity activist, speaker, author, and researcher, she believes we can change the world for the better by being positive, grateful, and kind, and she’s often quoted as saying “Happiness is a gauge, not a goal”. Her current focus is on helping organizations and teams navigate the particularly complex reality of today’s stressors and engagement challenges by nurturing healthier workplace cultures. No stranger to weird working environments, she believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to develop their strengths, find joy in their profession, and engage in the pursuit of happiness in the workplace and beyond. Sarah has a veritable army of garden gnomes keeping watch over her extensive container gardens and is the proud mother of four amazing humans who are making their positive own marks on the world. She and her spouse Kris, both certified Laughter Yoga leaders, also travel extensively bringing the joy and power of laughter and positivity with organizations of all sizes and industries. In their downtime, they enjoy exploring the outdoors (usually by kayak), dancing, and general merry adventuring. Sarah and her family currently reside in Indiana and travel as often as humanly possible.

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  1. Human leadership is not only possible, it is necessary to manage today’s and future complexity.
    Leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act to achieve a common and shared goal. This is only possible if the leader is able to inspire others and promote collaboration and, above all, if he takes care of the job satisfaction, success and well-being of the people who work with him. In fact, it is now known that, within a company or in other work contexts, leadership is a social process that leads a person to be able to influence the thoughts, attitudes and behaviors of others without the help of coercive methods or threats, but through a human approach, through the use of methods such as motivation, communication, empowerment and the creation of common goals. On the other hand, having a vast set of updated and in-depth professional skills in one’s own sector, even if fundamental, is not sufficient for adequate governance, because in reality it represents only a small part of what are the characteristics that a profile in charge should possess to the coordination of a group.
    True leadership, therefore, is not based on the simplistic concept of “command”, but on the contrary on the ability to lead and support your team to individual success, that must converge with the success of the group and, therefore, with business success.
    Personally, I imagine enlightened managers, committed to ensuring that their employees reach their full human potential, in an environment sensitive to safety and creativity. A sort of “people-centric leadership”, with the ability to let express the potential of collaborators, without neglecting their human and non-working dimension. Neglecting this approach would help create suffering social systems.

    • You make such good points, Aldo. It’s difficult for me to understand how this message continues to be missed. I have worked with truly brilliant people – who were unable to grasp *these* fundamental aspects of strong leadership. Here’s hoping people like you and I can continue to share these messages!