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Lessons in Leadership: Supporting Real Humans

Many of you who read this blog will know that last week, there was a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion on Roe v. Wade that indicated that the Court plans to overturn it.

I have a lot of feelings about this leaked draft, as a woman, as an American, as more information continues to come out from states around my country. Those feelings have often made it difficult to concentrate and focus on the things I would like to, to be as driven as I normally would be as my very rights are in question.

But I’m not here to talk about human rights. I’m here to talk about leadership and the overlap of our humanness and our work. Black women were the first to address this topic, as they so often are, when the Black Lives Matter protests began to become more mainstream and they began to point out how challenging it is for them to watch a Black person being killed over and over on the news and social media and then to pretend that everything is fine while at work.

The same is true for AAPI people, who have seen a staggering increase in violence against Asian people in the US but are expected to perform at the same levels while at work.

We again saw this with the war in Ukraine, while Russian tanks invaded a country and many Europeans found it hard to concentrate on little else.

We can say the same for large and small tragedies around the world every day.

One of the lessons that we learned from the pandemic that I am hopeful that we continue to take back with us to the offices is the tremendous overlap between our professional and personal lives. While I know there are some people who prefer to keep a wall between the two, the truth is that what happens to us outside the four walls of our offices (wherever they may be) has a deep and lasting impact on us professionally. And it should – the personal passions that we have make us better professionals.

But we are also human.

We are not automatons. We are not designed to live to work. When life happens, it should be okay to feel it and to bring our full selves to work. And as leaders, it is essential to foster a sense of acceptance of that fullness. So how do we do that?

  • Live by example: Make it okay for others to share how they’re feeling by sharing how you’re feeling. We’ve talked about this here on Zen before with respect to the pandemic, in as much as you still need to come across as a strong and capable leader. But you can and should be able to be vulnerable too.
  • Make work a safe space: Genuinely ask others how they’re doing – stay up to date on what may be those touchpoints for people and check in with them (privately) to see how they are. If they need time off or to back off a project for a day because they’re feeling overwhelmed, give them the space and grace to do so, but without breaking their confidence or punishing them professionally. Employees and colleagues should be able to be vulnerable without consequence.
  • Create resources: You may be a great shoulder to lean on, but you may not be the person that they want to talk to. Sometimes a professional or an employee resource group is a better solution. Have those resources in place in advance and then enable and encourage your teams to use them when they need to.
  • Show your support: When it is a human issue, like the ones I’ve mentioned above, it’s critical that the groups in question know that they are supported both in words AND action by the firm/company they work for (and honestly, preferably before a social issue arises that causes strife). Now would be a great time to review with your ERGs what action plans you have, review your healthcare, etc. Then, you can reaffirm your actions with words as needed.

The world can be a challenging place at the moment, but what we have is each other. We spend most of our lives at work, and we are all better when we bring our full selves there, whatever that looks like. As leaders, we are called to support the real humans that we work with, and when we do, we’ll all be better for it.