Wholehearted Leadership: Being a Human Manager

When I initially decided to start a blog, over a year ago, I had a clear vision for what I wanted it to be. I wanted to share with people everything I have learned, and continue to learn, about small business management.

I first experienced supervising people professionally 15 years ago, but you could say my management, or leadership, of people began when I was 8 and I started babysitting the neighbors’ kids. I never really stopped, transitioning straight from babysitting and working in the nursery at church to being a youth leader, then managing people at work, and eventually owning my own business.

Over the years, I developed what I have come to realize is an unusual, or unique, management style. I reject a lot of ideas that are mainstream for both business owners and managers, and embrace vulnerability and boundaries. The thing that makes me different, in a word, is empathy.

My management, or leadership, style has served me well. My staff is loyal, I have about half or less of the turn over that is standard for my industry, and I frequently get compliments from customers about how great our staff is. This doesn’t mean I never struggle or that I haven’s made mistakes. Believe me, leadership of any kind is not for the faint of heart, and I make mistakes daily. But, the mistakes I’ve made have only expanded my knowledge and helped me to grow as a manager and a human.

My leadership style developed out of a combination of different values and experiences. My Christian upbringing and faith established a baseline of kindness and compassion in me. I do my best to treat others the way I would want to be treated, and to love those around me, even when they’re not kind to me, even when they’re my subordinates, even when they can’t do anything for me.
My personal growth, through plain ol’ aging, professional counseling, introspection, study, meditation, and interpersonal relationships, cemented in me that you can’t have compassion and love without also having healthy boundaries. They go hand-in-hand. They are inseparable. We don’t usually learn that part in church.

Bosses that I’ve had have taught me both what to do, and what not to do, by example. I’ve had amazing bosses, who trusted their staff to do the right thing, and guided them where needed, or took the time to encourage their employees through their insecurities in order to pave the way for growth.

I’ve also had bosses who would fire people for not knowing how to do something that they were never taught to do, or would lash out, blaming a person for something they had no knowledge of, just because they happened to be present when the manager found out about it, or literally throw things in the middle of a full blown tantrum in front of clients.

I am blessed that I haven’t personally dealt with outright abuse at the hands of managers in the workplace. From what I understand from stories I hear from my staff and other people I know, being abused by a boss is a given for a lot of people, especially in food service. So much so, that the employees don’t even recognize it as abuse. That’s how “normal” it is.

This. blows. my. mind. I cannot grasp the concept that treating humans like they’re humans is not the standard. I recently read an interview with Jeffrey Pfeffer, a business professor at Stanford, that talks about how this is literally killing us. It’s tragic. Managers, and companies as a whole, are not being held accountable for their bad behavior.

The things that most leaders are missing are vulnerability, empathy and boundaries. Accepting the fact that you are human goes a very, very long way in leadership. This means accepting, embracing and harnessing your strengths and your weaknesses. Vulnerability means being who you really are, and telling your staff how you really feel, and empathy means emotionally (and sometimes practically) putting yourself in their shoes. Boundaries mean establishing expectations, holding people accountable for their actions and not taking on other people’s problems as your own.

An example: When I am training a new employee, I often utter the words “This is our standard for doing this task. I have a really hard time with it; I’m still working on getting it right.” This is one small way I am vulnerable, empathetic and boundaried. I demonstrate how to do something, I communicate that I am not great at it, and indicate that I’m working towards being better. I’ve established a boundary and expectation, given permission for mistakes, but have also given the expectation for growth and improvement.

Vulnerability, empathy, boundaries.

In future business posts I will go over more specifics regarding how I implement and model the use of vulnerability, empathy and boundaries with my staff and my customers.

For more information on the topic, please check out Brene Brown, who is a researcher and social worker and an expert in vulnerability and shame, and Henry Cloud and John Townsend, who literally wrote the book on boundaries.

Until next time.


Published by Noelle

Noelle lives in Denver, CO with her husband Tim and their tuxedo cat Betty. She's worked in customer service for 20 years and is an expert manager. She's sarcastic and has a dry sense of humor. She loves cooking, all things geeky, self-improvement, charity work, learning about God, and creating community.

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