Managing with heart and soul
Winslow Wong 

A DOCTOR friend recently shared his experiences of working in various hospitals. A particular one stood out. He and his colleagues loved working there as it was a happy place, thanks to the caring head nurse.

She was understanding, respectful of everyone, and just loved promoting collaboration between doctors and nurses. “The place had a heart and soul,” he said, with a glow on his face.

“Then she retired and was replaced by a senior nurse. But things changed almost overnight. She started questioning everything and everybody.

“She was very strict with the nurses, clocking in early every morning to check who came late. Instead of the usual joyful chatters and laughers before the start of shifts, the atmosphere became tense as everyone hurried about their work with such serious looks on their faces.

“And occasionally, I saw nurses crying, deeply hurt by the head nurse’s caustic comments,” he said.

As you would have expected, morale plummeted as everybody was so fearful of her that work soon became routine and impersonal, without much staff interaction. And working there was no longer fun but a drudgery.

Like the head nurse, business owners and managers can also, knowingly or unknowingly, lead without heart and soul. This will slowly but surely kill human engagement.

Early in my career, I had my first encounter with my new manager which left such a vivid impression on me that I can still remember it as though it happened yesterday.

We met in the conference room and less than a minute into our conversation, he abruptly interrupted, “Wait, are you sitting in a leather chair?”

Our conversation resumed only after I swapped the high-back leather chair which I unintentionally occupied when I walked into the room with his mid-back fabric chair because “leather chairs are only for bosses”. Gosh, I didn’t know there was such a rule!

Over the years, I’d many opportunities to manage Gen Xers and Gen Yers who often came across as stubborn, impatient, entitled, advancement hungry and in need of constant feedback.

Seriously, at one point I remember talking to this spirited young man who had just joined my team.

I had a choice: “Do I kill his youthful exuberance with old-school management styles like what I had endured in my early years, or do I figure out how best to embrace his work attitudes and philosophies that were right and refreshing on so many different levels?”

I chose the latter and was glad I did. It was a great learning experience for both of us. Not only did I assimilate him smoothly into my team within a month or two, I enjoyed working with him through the years as he turned out to be a great contributor with loads of fresh ideas.

We live in an ever-evolving business world filled with all kinds of rules, regulations and red tape, so much so that instead of focusing on building great teams and engaging staff, our priorities are on the wrong things.

As a result, business owners and managers often get stuck in soul-less leadership which is a primary cause of poor staff engagement, unhappiness, drudgery, and so much more.

As workplaces become more informal and less hierarchical, command-and-control management styles do not fly anymore, particularly when you lead and manage spirited individuals hired for their creative brainpower.

They want thoughtful and caring managers and leaders who can inspire them and give them enough reasons to work diligently beyond a pay cheque.

Our workplaces are in dire need of soulful leaders who can greatly impact the lives of employees to make them want to get up each morning all excited and raring to go to work. Are you such a leader?

Why does having a soul matter in leadership? And in this context, I am not speaking of that part of our humanity that’s regarded as immortal, and separable from the body at death.

I am talking about a person’s feelings or moral nature as distinct from other faculties. It’s the humanness or nobility of spirit or temperament.

True leadership is not about power or stature but having a deep sense of responsibility. If the soul is missing from leadership, we’ve only cold, callous and competitive organisations that have hardly any care or concern for the welfare of employees.

When you infuse the soul into leadership, you bring the heart back into it.

We can no longer use old-school management styles that rely on intellect alone to make decisions and lead people.

We must consult our hearts if we want to develop great workers who are self-motivated to give their best.

And when that happens, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Soft management is a better option to lead if we want to attract and retain younger generations of workers.

We need to show care and appreciation to the people we lead, as well as foster a culture where the contribution of every individual is recognised and valued.

Soulful leadership is about marrying the head and the heart and harnessing both to bring the best out of people.

As they say, it takes people, passion and principles to create successful organisations. And to do that, business owners and managers must lead with a soul.

Having worked with scores of leaders over the years, I can safely say many lack wisdom – a critical ingredient in modern leadership.

Despite the wealth of information that’s available, wisdom is sorely missing because many leaders rely only on their intellect and massive piles of data to draw conclusions and make decisions. Sometimes we should also listen to our hearts.

We need to manage by walking around, talking with employees and assessing how our decisions will impact them. Occasionally, we have to do what we know is right, instead of blindly following the rule book.

Much wisdom is required to lead workers these days, more than ever before. We cannot become so rational that we cease to be real.

Wisdom connects us to that authentic space within us. Wisdom is not housed in the head. It resides in the heart and is collected through our experiences.

Use it diligently to engage employees so that everybody’s contribution, big or small, is appreciated and recognised.

We’re hearing a lot these days about “humanising” business. This is well and good. But we certainly can’t have leadership without humanity or people.

As someone aptly said, the genius of leadership is its humanness and heart. How true. Matters of the heart matter if you want to produce an engaged workforce.

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 278.