There’s only two kinds of leaders in this world. This is where I’m supposed to pithily label them, but I don’t think we have words to do that. There’s only a long version for this idea.
Most leaders would profess to “care” a great deal. I’m sure there are corporate megalomaniacs out there, but I haven’t met one personally, so I don’t have much to say about that. How I want to bifurcate leadership is much more pedestrian: how a person thinks about “caring” and how they direct it.
Some leaders talk about “the needs of the group” as the highest priority. Phrases like this are repeated sagely, as if it’s some great pillar of enlightenment to understand this, perhaps even implying it’s altruistic simply to believe it. Unfortunately, a lack of introspection easily conflates “the needs of the group” with “my needs for what this group must be.” They are prioritizing a mirage of their own mind’s creation. It’s not a group of people, it’s their idea of a group.
That’s how it all drifts sideways in the end: Their idea diverges from the reality of the individuals just enough to inevitably cause disillusionment. People leave, and hiring becomes a treadmill. Once that treadmill starts you rarely get off it, and it reinforces the suspicion they had all along: Individuals abandon you so they aren’t worth the investment. All that matters is the group that’s here today.
A group is just a collection of individuals. It isn’t magic. Prioritizing the individual isn’t a zero-sum game with the group, it’s an incredible force multiplier. And the stupidly simple reason is trust. Truly caring about an individual and prioritizing their care earns you their trust.
You can’t lead any further than people trust you. Everyone who works for you should be in one of two modes for the scope of any work they do: They have your trust, or they understand what they must do next to earn it. When leaders are unable to articulate this confidently, that’s often when the “needs of the group” hand-waving begins.
It’s deeply exhausting to care for individuals. All those narratives about them and by them. All those perspectives and experiences. All those expectations and uncertainty about the future. When you care about all of it, the magnitude of trying to align them is overwhelming at times. But that’s the real work of leadership.
The irony is that folks who talk about the “group’s needs” think about themselves as an individual: Their achievements, their sacrifice, their experience is what got the group here. So this “group” is who benefited from them, the individual. This thinking is completely backwards. It’s rotten. It’s unsustainable. But sometimes they get away with it anyway, and then congratulate themselves for their grit and determination.
When you look in someone’s eyes and ask them a real question about how they feel, they know whether you mean it. There’s no faking it. You’re either the kind of leader who is braced for all possible answers and will confidently meet that challenge because you genuinely care about that person, or you’re the kind of leader who will be disappointed by a negative response because, in the back of your mind, you think they’re letting the group down by not putting on a smile and soldiering on.
They already know which you are.