Our Superheroes Need Intimacy Too

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Our Superheroes Need Intimacy Too

A friend and I were walking yesterday and talking about the notion that many of the leaders who got us through Covid were Superheroes. My friend (his name is Buddy) honestly didn’t really get it. So, I told him I would try again. And this time, I would introduce another idea, that of intimacy. His eyes rolled at that one.

The earlier piece noted that there will likely be an exodus of smart, capable leadership talent at the Vice President and Director levels. The point I was making was that the social isolation and the IT ersatz connections we’ve endured the past 15 months have changed things.  Changed relationships with no clear path back in many cases.

As I continued talking this out with my friend, I found myself asking what the essence was that was missing on Zoom calls. I know that when I talked with my clients who were living through this, they found it challenging to describe. Trust was mentioned a lot as in “my boss just doesn’t trust me anymore”. Partnership was also mentioned: “I used to be able to count on her to help me think important things through”. As I listened over the course of the pandemic, I sensed a genuine sense of loss, almost a mourning for the lost potential in what was a valued business partnership. My friend Buddy still couldn’t relate to my words. So, hopefully this installment will give me the words to communicate more effectively with him on our walk tomorrow.

After scrambling to understand Microsoft Teams, I quickly found that it could be a highly effective medium IF there was a prior relationship, a face-to-face intimacy. As my consulting shifted to Teams, I found that in interactions with clients with whom there was a prior relationship, a friendship, little was lost. Sure, I couldn’t comment on what they had scribbled on their whiteboards (engineers love their scribbles on whiteboards), but if we took the time, they would eventually describe it to me. We were able, in short, to simulate the intimacy, the trust we had prior to the ersatz connection imposed by the tech.

Meanwhile, I began hearing about the self-imposed isolation their bosses brought to their relationship. Where once there was partnership and mutual ownership of complex leadership, business and market challenges, there was now a relentless focus on metrics, data, goals. No one was surprised that these were elevated in prominence during a difficult business downturn, worst recession since…you get the idea. Whatever the metaphor, it was bad. What blew them away was the corresponding partnership vacuum that occurred when trying to solve the widespread labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and Covid related losses. Amidst the isolation of holding Zoom calls with peers in the same building (conference rooms were closed, remember), I sensed a genuine loneliness.

In family terms (an admittedly terrible organizational leadership metaphor, but bear with me), it was like your brother no longer cared how hard you were trying to solve an insolvable personal problem. No help, just judgment. Imagine how that would feel. Now couple that feeling with the fate control possessed by bosses. The sudden erosion of trust, transparency and feeling of doom drove many to distraction and some to drink. Many would ask me, “why did I give up so much to come here? If I’d known….”

You can see where I’m going. Intimacy. But is that a “thing”? In the workplace? Well, the answer is yes. Honestly, I thought this was my original thought, but no. My brief search revealed a wonderful old book, probably little read today, Max De Pree’s 1987 Leadership is an Art. Dupree was the second leader of Herman Miller, the furniture manufacturer. But the company he and his father built was much more than a furniture company. It was (is) a creative culture where De Pree argued the people in the company taught him the art of leadership. He writes about the place of intimacy in leading others. Intimacy between leader and led is based on relationship covenants, not the data and metric driven contracts we live by. His argument implies that when things fall apart, when demand evaporates, when people are dying, it is the covenants we have with each other that get us through, that help us survive, thrive, and get back on top. Covenant is a spiritual construct, a promise as in “I’ve got your back”. It’s different from the contractual obligations implied in job descriptions.

I know I must sound like the Technology Anti-Christ. I actually like Zoom calls and the like. But I understand that it is a simulation of human interaction. It’s not real. It is an intimacy killer, unless we are very careful. And I’ve not seen everyone understand that.

One of De Pree’s heroes is Robert Greenleaf of “Servant Leadership” fame. I’ve seen leaders who would always ask, “Is there anything you need from me? How can I help you in pursuit of your goal?” transform into metric-driven demons who came to meetings with sticks sharpened, ready to poke people in the eye. In short, I’ve seen them forget all they knew about leadership and focus only on their own vulnerability. Why is that? Fear, for sure, but there is more, I think.

One answer is in De Pree’s book. He tells his readers that just reading the book won’t make you a great leader. You have to live it, feel it, fail at it and try again. And respect the diversity of thinking and approach you hired people for. He implies that it is a journey. And that is the point of this piece, I think. The way to avoid losing the Superheroes you brought on is not to kill them in the face of overwhelming challenge. Not to kill them, thereby creating the dead wood of lore. The solution is to re-build the intimacy and trust we’ve lost. For only through a covenant of intimate trust can we achieve the creative trust we’ve lost. Only than can we truly be mutually accountable or the success of the enterprise.  

Unfortunately, the solution to the lack of intimacy in the leader-led relationship likely does not rest with the led. This is because the “diversity-appreciating partnership” has been replaced by a top-down, hierarchical command structure. Power is too unequal for the oppressed Superhero to change the dynamic. It is up to the leader to humbly change the situation, or at least open the door. The big question is will they? In time? We can hope. What do you think?