I recently had the honor of speaking to an association of financial executives at their monthly keynote event at a beautiful wedding venue in Denver. I was excited to share a different perspective on leadership for this modern, post-pandemic era and figured that, being a financial executive myself for 20 years, they’d consider me one of them and be open to exploring something different. You see, the traditional leadership model throughout most of Corporate America for at least the last 50 years – and especially in financial services – has been based on Fear and Intimidation: you did what you were told and what you thought about it was your problem. The Human stayed home while the Cog made the Company machine their priority.
We had a lively first 20 minutes, trading stories of horrific leadership mishaps from our careers, commiserating about poor management and woeful misbehavior. It seemed obvious to me that we were on the same page, that we had all been mistreated or witnessed first-hand the mistreatment of others … until I got into the crux of my presentation. If we, instead, respect and treat each other as the humans we are, the results will be exponentially better than under the old carrot-stick and whip environments we ‘grew up’ in. The room went silent.
Honestly, I’m still a bit shocked at the push-back I received once we got to the Q&A. I see the Great Resignation as an obvious rebellion against inhumane treatment at the hands of corporate overlords. They simply couldn’t understand how 4 million Americans would forgo traditional employment in the hopes of finding something more fulfilling. Are Humans simply the Labor input in a Cost of Goods Sold computation? I find that offensive.
I explained that we are witnessing a global power shift from employer to employee, and if they didn’t come around, all those vacant cubicles would stay empty. They didn’t see it that way. To them, it was a battle of wills. Eventually the hold outs would need to eat, and come crawling back.
I described how the Millennials and Gen Z – who grew up witnessing us as their burned out, abused, depressed parents – wanted more out of their brief time on Earth and weren’t willing to settle for being treated like merely a means to production. Not only did they not buy it, they mocked their own children for being lazy whiners … like, who’s fault would that be, anyway? Is it really a bad thing to put your joie de vivre ahead of corporate profits? Is that really why we’re on this planet, to keep the wheels of Capitalism rolling? That’s horse shit. Don’t believe the stories.
I used my 23-year old daughter as an example of how the ‘kids’ these days are not willing to undergo mental abuse because ‘that’s the way it’s always been.’ They couldn’t understand why she didn’t just do her job… heck, they did!
And that’s the problem. I think sometimes when people are victimized – especially when they don’t realize that’s what’s happening – it’s an easy Ego play to feel others deserve the same (“This made me stronger, just wait until they see what it does for them”). They forget how marginalized they felt the first dozen or so times it happened to them. They’ve been numbed over the course of their career to expect this abusive behavior; to accept that they deserve it. They’ve even learned to believe it was good for them, made them stronger, or better, or successful. It’s a lie we have to force ourselves to believe in order to trudge along… and it can be used to justify treating others the same.
But using Fear and Intimidation to coerce expected behavior is never acceptable. You’re not even supposed to train your dog that way.
It reminds me of the old fraternity days: I was hazed and survived, therefore, I will haze the next suckers. We used to think if we forced a group of new recruits to hate us sufficiently, they would bond into a cohesive unit. And if we did it just right, they’d have enough respect for the perpetrators to feel part of the larger group once they made it through the gauntlet. Sometimes it worked, oftentimes it didn’t. Turns out it’s not that easy to get a bunch of negatives to come around to something positive. And the group-think seemed to make it all ok.
The corporate world that I experienced wasn’t a whole lot different … probably helps explain why I was relatively successful there – I had had the fraternal pre-training.
And then I learned of a more Human way to lead, one where leadership means facilitation, not direction. Where humans are allowed to be human and respected for their lived experiences and individual contributions. Where we’re not ‘bent to the wheel’ but encouraged to think outside the veritable box.
This is why I take leaders into the wilderness. When none of the social constructs we’ve (perhaps unknowingly) grown to rely on are absent, we’re forced out of the box to learn what’s waiting for us in that space: wisdom, inspiration, creativity, love. What it means to be human, really. It’s amazing that in a place where there is scant trace of other humans, you can find empathy for humanity. It’s hard NOT to be kind when you’ve felt that.
When I spoke of this the other night, it was incorrectly assumed that I suggested we need to coddle employees and stand at the ready with a big hug. That if the (typically) white- (typically) man-in-charge wasn’t cracking the whip, then the office would degenerate into a Daycare Center by lunch. In essence, that humans didn’t have enough self-respect and self-discipline to show up and do their job. Fear and Intimidation was the only way.
There is something in between, of course … there always is. Treating people as fellow humans does NOT mean treating them as children – that’s the patriarchy we’re finally coming to see clearly as the bane of our current system.
To accept that we humans are really all the same, regardless of our station, is to accept an equality between us as individuals: that a billionaire is NOT a better human than someone living on the streets. That silver spoon in your mouth does not make you better than me. It’s just a spoon. Understand that our differences are used to pit us against each other through man-made (i.e., illusory) social constructs – they’re not REAL! But they do have very real, very negative consequences for a multitude of people throughout our community when they aren’t acknowledged or understood…
Once we accept that we’re all the same:
- That we all make meaning of our experiences through thought
- That we are all innately perfect bundles of mental health, if not for our thinking
- That there is no ‘them’ … only ‘us’
Then we can begin to not only accept what we see as differences between us but get curious about what makes us different. To seek to understand how and why we see things differently (and how what we ‘see’ as different, isn’t really all that different). This approach only happens from a place of presence, of living life where life is lived; in the moment. Where curiosity resides. From a place of love. Because it’s a lot harder to wield the blunt instrument of Fear and Intimidation when you understand someone enough to feel love for them. And when we feel loved, when we feel valued, when we feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, we’ll achieve more than you’ve ever seen us achieve before.
At least it’s worth a try, right?
So, how does this story end? Well, I had intended to wrap with two reflections:
- One about The Reciprocity Collective, an incredible nonprofit I work with that provides basic human need and employment support to the unhoused community. TRC is a model of modern nonprofit management, with all stakeholders represented throughout the organization and charged with treating each other with the same humanity as we do our constituents. It’s been very successful in making an exponential impact.
- And the other about the entire keynote being an exercise in how reframing can lead to a positive mindset and a successful keynote (so much for that!).
Instead, the Q&A devolved into an argument amongst the crowd about where the 4-million Americans who supposedly vanished from the workforce were hiding. It got to the point where the senior person in the room had to commandeer the microphone and say, “Thank you Jeff, that will be all for tonight, have a good evening everyone, goodbye.” I didn’t even get to show the final slide with my contact information … perhaps a blessing, in hindsight.
I guess they weren’t ready.
I’m still baffled that we could spend so much time commiserating about the abusive management behavior we had all been subjected to and yet still argue to support it. That they couldn’t quite see that all humans walking Earth are the same, are equal, and deserve to be treated as we would all like to be treated, and that in doing so, the outcomes would be exponentially better. That said, I did get a sense that the younger folks in the group were biting their tongues, that they may have agreed with the perspective I was promoting and were just biding their time. That keeps me hopeful.
There’s still hope that what’s best for us as a species will prevail. There always is.
*If you or someone you know is suffering from Fear & Intimidation Management, I can help – it’s what I do (firstname.lastname@example.org)