A few years ago, a brilliant young manager asked me a hard question during a leadership training session. He said, “What on earth do you mean when you say I should lead in a wholehearted way? In MBA school they didn’t teach me anything about wholeheartedness, or actually anything about my heart at all.”
His question brought me up short. I thought for sure I did not have to explain what wholehearted meant. I was wrong. My choice of words reflected my mindset, and for that manager, I might as well have been speaking gibberish.
His question surfaced a bundle of memories of leaders I’ve worked with who really want to understand the messy, soft, tender, and dynamic aspects of leadership. The aspects that have to do with creating genuine human connection. They come to me because they need this work, which often flies in the face of what they know from or have been taught by MBA school, law school, medical school, engineering school and, in fact, society at large, about how to show up.
Our collective inherited mythology about what matters at work prioritizes what we know: our expertise, our logical reasoning, our data, and our facts. Nothing in there about “heart.” The dictionary definition of wholehearted is “completely and sincerely devoted, determined, or enthusiastic.” But Dr. Brené Brown, whose work I feel lucky to share (Dare to Lead™), describes wholeheartedness as how we show up when we are all in. People who are being wholehearted feel all the joy and the pain that is the human experience but manage to not shrink, hide, or shut down in the face of it. They own their story and find self-worth in it.
What this young leader reminded me of when he asked his question is that when it comes to leadership, we often skirt around or avoid our very human nature. We act as if it is only what we know that matters, not what we feel. Our hearts are relegated to the bench once we achieve a level of positional authority.
An interesting paradox in my career is that 95% or more of my clients are men. Most of the time, the work we do together (whether they are CEO, Chairman of the Board, or front-line leader) centers on helping them show up in ways that create authentic connection and build cultures of belonging. White men, in particular, are not taught how to feel (or at least how to express those feelings). By the way, white women who break the glass ceiling and lead at the top, often assimilate into male culture, imitating white-male leadership styles. Good leadership has been synonymous with (unhealthy) manliness.
This dynamic leaves male leaders (and assimilated female leaders) flat footed when they rise in authority. Somehow, feelings conflict with our inherited notions of manliness, creating a confusing and tattered tapestry which affects all boys and men and all of us, at home, and in society. Jennifer Bossom, a University of Florida gender researcher says that manhood is something that’s hard to earn and easy to lose and that masculinity is in fact more precarious than femininity. Think about all the expressions and stereotypes and bad jokes out there about “being a man” and “manning up” “boys don’t cry” that perpetuate the image of what being a man has meant for centuries: He can stand alone, and he can take it. He doesn’t cry. He is focused on winning. He makes more money than his partner. He is analytical/rational and not emotional. He is strong, physically and mentally. His family can depend on him. His work is central to his identity. He likes sports. He is heroic.
Today, more than ever, organizations in every sector need leaders who can show up more fully than these limiting and outdated images. The vast majority of the leaders I work with and who sit in power roles in organizations are men. White men.
To you, the white guys out there, I feel privileged to partner with you at work, to love you at home, and to befriend you in life, as you work hard to show up whole and with heart.
Male leaders who step outside of society’s outdated notions of masculinity and make it their business to learn about feelings (theirs and those of others), about human connection, about empathy versus problem-solving , and about the twin behaviors of vulnerability and courage, are essential to thriving at work and at home. I believe that these (often white and male) leaders matter more than ever today for our shared future.
So, to that young man all those years ago, I would answer that “wholehearted” means redefining what it means to be a leader beyond the hard-to-achieve, brittle, narrow, and limiting definitions of past models of masculinity.
Real Leadership is about showing up as fully human, inside and out. This means embracing the paradoxes of being strong and tender, brave and scared, confident and worried, knowing and befuddled, leading and listening, all at the same time.
We really need you to show up with your whole heart.