Podcast: Mark C. Crowley and Leading From the Heart

May 13, 2021
  • Brent Stewart
  • Brent Stewart
    Digital Strategy & Content Leader at Barry-Wehmiller

The past year has been a time of incredible uncertainty. It is something unprecedented and has led to a lot of change with more change still to come.

So, as we look upon the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic and try to return to some kind of normalcy – at home and in our workplaces – what’s next? How will we take the lessons of the past year and apply them to the future of work?

On this Truly Human Leadership podcast, I talk to Mark C. Crowley, consultant, fellow podcast host and author of Lead From the Heart: Heart-Based Leadership for the 21st Century.

On this episode, Mark and I discuss whether the pandemic has changed the way leaders lead. We talk about mental health and the workplace. We talk about what it will take to get leaders to change their ways and become more caring and empathetic toward their people. And we start off – as you can read in the transcript below – with Mark defining what he calls “heart-based leadership.”

Podcast Transcript

Mark Crowley:

You know, it's interesting because this is language now that's being widely used, and it wasn't. In fact, I was urged by somebody that I paid a lot of money to when my book came out to never, ever again use the expression lead from the heart because it was perceived to be truly soft and weak and sentimental, and that the world wasn't really ready for that. And so if you want to fail spectacularly, continue to use that language. That's really what she was trying to tell me. And people that I've told that story to thought, well, I hope you were massively offended, particularly given how much money you spent for this advice. And I said, well, actually, what she did for me was to confirm that when we say lead from the heart or lead with heart, heart-based leaders, this people are spinning this now to create it in their own language, but the point is, is that it's now become something that people are embracing and understanding a little bit more when we haven't always, because our instinctive reaction was this is weak and stupid.

But what it really boils down to, and where I feel like my message is differentiated, is that I'm not speaking metaphorically. So, when people think about leading from the heart, it's like being nice to people. Everybody has a fantasy about what it means, and that's not what I'm talking about at all. What I'm really talking about is the idea that in order to really inspire people and to get them to do their great work, it's all about feelings. It's all about feelings and emotions. We think we're rational people, but feelings and emotions are what drive people and motivate them to do work or not to do work, to be engaged or not to be engaged. And so if that's true, then we should be really thinking about how do we create what I call emotional currency, which is to pay people in ways that give them the feelings that translate into positive emotions that inspire them to do their great work. And as I mentioned, the differentiator is that I believe that the heart plays a role in this.

So the heart is much more than a pump, and science is showing that the heart and the mind are connected and that feelings are actually experienced, not just in the brain, but throughout the body and especially in the heart. And that when you do things to people that are thoughtful and caring and supportive, where you're developing people and you're recognizing people and it's all genuine, people feel that. And there's a reaction inside of people that says, I want to do good things for this person because of what they're doing for me. We're hard wired as humans to basically be reciprocal, to give back what we're given. So that works in our favor and it doesn't work in our favor.

If we're caring and supportive of people and truly empathetic and really genuinely compassionate about what's going on in their lives, people can feel that and they want to work hard for you. If they feel like all you care about is results and you don't care about them or what's going on in their life or what their dreams are or what their life experience is, not only do people disengage, which is one of the prime reasons why people aren't engaged all over the world, but as I'm re-experiencing this week, I'm talking to employees of a company right now, and the bitterness, the resentment is really amazing. How it goes into people's systems, where they're just feeling like I'm not getting any of the love that I need, and they're becoming angry about it. They're so deficient that now people are just really, really unhappy, and that creates actively disengaged people. That's what Gallup calls them.

Brent Stewart:

It's amazing, and it's amazing that we've only really been able to scratch the surface of this, of how the way we lead impacts, the way people live. It's something we've been talking about for a little while now, but you were just talking about just the impact of people not feeling loved or cared about in their job. And we're supposed to just be able to separate those 40 hours a week from the rest of the hours in the week, the rest of the hours in a day. It's really frustrating to think that this is just a new concept or maybe a new concept. Do you think that it is something that we're just starting to realize, or where was there a time where things changed in terms of how we thought about leadership?


Well, I mean, there's actually a lot of really interesting stuff that adds up to why we're where we're at, but the Reader's Digest version of my answer would be that business owners had all the power forever and didn't have to, you know, people needed to meet their basic needs, right? A roof over their heads, food on the table. And so the exchange for centuries was I pay you to do work, and if you do good work, maybe I'll give you a little bit more. And if you don't do good work, I'm going to fire you and find somebody else. So you're always under a threat. You're always under a fear. You're always under this 'I'm lucky as hell to have a job'. And then on top of it, we created traditional leadership theory kind of coexistence, which was the idea that we pay people as little as possible and squeeze as much out of them as possible. So we've never really thought to make work a good experience.

And of course, there have been examples like Henry Ford, who decided that if you pay people a lot more money, that you could create an environment where people would stay longer and work harder. But that became... he was also spying on his people and held people accountable for their personal lives and was going through their trash pails to see whether they were drinking too much. And so it wasn't like this comprehensive approach to thinking about how do we support people in their whole lives in order to help them become more successful?

So if you go back to Maslow, Maslow said that every human being is basically hardwired to seek what he called basically maximizing their own human potential. Right? That's really what he was all about. And self-actualization is the language that he used, and he said most of us understand that, but what he said that most people don't remember is that none of us would really be able to, or be motivated internally, to pursue self-actualization until all of the lower-level needs that we had on his pyramid were met. So for most of history, most people really just were barely getting by. So work was enough to just sustain them, to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, but over time what's happened now is that... and the pandemic has messed us up, so we sort of have to take that out of the equation. But heading up to the pandemic, we had reached a point in, at least in America, but particularly in Europe, North America, where people were... the highest percentage of people on the planet in history were able to meet their most basic needs every single day. They were making enough money. It didn't mean they were living in luxury and it didn't mean they were eating lobster, but what it meant was that they weren't worried about where they were going to get their next meal and they weren't worried about where they were going to live.

And so what that did was that it sort of propelled our whole society into saying, 'I need more from work than just a paycheck'. And that's sort of this profound shift in thinking. We never said that before. I mean, people went to work going, ' This is a sh--ty existence here, the way I'm being treated, but I got no options. Wherever I go, it's going to be the same.' And so people sort of put up with it, and that was sort of our lot in life. But now people are going into work and saying, 'I need growth. I need fulfillment. I need somebody who's going to coach and mentor me. I need somebody who's going to appreciate me. I want somebody who understands me personally.' And we've gone crazy in terms of, and I don't mean that critically, I mean it like we've gone wild in our expectations of what we expect from work. And so initially, particularly when the millennials showed up 20 years ago, there was this reaction in business was like, who the hell are these kids telling us that they want these things? I never got these things. They're going to have to learn that this is the way we work, and it was all that kind of pushback. And so then the millennials have this reputation of not sticking around long and being disloyal, and so they got this scarlet letter on them.

But the smart companies figured out that if you met them halfway, if you change how you managed and you led, then you were going to keep them. And so they were no less motivated to stay with a company long-term, but they weren't going to stick around if they weren't getting the kind of support and leadership that they felt that they needed. And interestingly, millennials watched the baby boomers grow up, their parents, and in the great recession companies instinctively, as soon as things went bad, the first instinct was ‘let's lay 10,000 people off and stop spending all this money on people.’ Where a lot of other companies that were enlightened said, ‘let's figure out ways to cut in other places and keep people and keep them focused and working so that when things recover, we're going to be in great shape.’ And there were companies that actually did that.

But the large amount of people in this country bring something very differently, which was their companies demonstrated that they weren't loyal to them at all. And so these millennials saw their parents working, both parents working until 9:00 every night, bringing work home, being exhausted and stressed out, and then losing their jobs in the recession, and they were like, I don't want any part of this. I don't ever want to work in an environment like that. That's not going to be my life. And so I think they were sort of the first glimpse that if you're going to want to be managing this generation successfully, and all future generations successfully, you're going to have to change how you lead.


You know, you just mentioned something there that's interesting, the term loyalty, that their companies weren't loyal to them at all. And the last year of the pandemic has kind of ripped off all the scabs, all the wounds between employers and their people. Something I saw you tweet the other day, it referenced an ADP global study that found that only 14% of workers were fully engaged in 2020. Do you think that that is the continuance of a trend, or do you think that it was due to just kind of all the scabs being ripped off these wounds and just being in this incredibly unique situation, not only for leaders but for their people, for companies? I mean, it's incredible new territory, but it almost seemed to be the place where concerns about leadership just all kind of came together.


Well, I mean, that's a really good question, and I think it really boils down to how did your organization, and particularly your manager respond to what happened. Right? So, I mean, it all happened so suddenly. All of a sudden, this pandemic has hit us and people are not going to be able to go into their offices anymore, and then you have this split in terms of how companies thought about it. Like my thinking about it from my own point of view, as the owner, as a business manager -- how am I going to hit my goals? How am I going to make my profit? How am I going to live? How am I going to make my money? -- Or am I thinking more comprehensively, which is to say, I'm not the only one impacted by this. So what are we going to do for our people? How are we going to support them? How are we going to make them feel comfortable working like this? How are we going to make them feel connected, not just to us as managers and leaders, but to one another if they're not seeing each other?

And of course, we didn't know how long this was going to last and it's lasted longer, but it's lasted long enough for people to have adapted, to say, whoa, this isn't a three-month thing or a two-month thing. This is now six months, nine months. And so I think the answer is engagement hasn't gotten any better in 15 years. My principle argument is it's never going to get any better until we change how we lead. So you can't expect people to be responding any differently unless you do something differently. And we haven't been willing to make that jump. We've been, we've been willing to do superficial things, snacks, and maybe some extra perks and things like that, that people like, but that ultimately don't move the needle. And it really comes down to how people feel about their direct manager. The person... does my manager care about me? Does my manager know about what's going on in my life and the challenges that I'm facing and how I'm dealing with this from home and even what's a good time to call me if he or she wants me to talk about a job? Calling me at 8:00 when I'm trying to get my kid online for school is not the right time.

These kinds of things, it goes back to what I said earlier. It's all about feelings. So if you call people... I've been advocating for managers this whole time, like from the day one, the very first thing you need to add into your repertoire is a weekly call with every single direct report where all you do is talk about them. How are you doing? What can I do to help you? What's going on in your life? What are the challenges you face? What do I need to know that that will allow me to be more thoughtful in how I manage you? Not... and by the way, I have you on there and where are you on this report? Or where are you on this? It's just talking about them because the more investment that you can make in people, then people feel that and they feel like, wait a minute, Mark cares about me enough to give me an hour or half an hour every week just to talk about me? Who does that? And when you have that feeling, you're going to be really engaged. You're going to be really like, what do you need me to do, Mark?

This has been my direct experience in managing people my whole career. None of this is new to me. This is how I've been managing my whole life, and I saw people just... it's like there's a glow in people. You can see they're just... and it does boil down to love, by the way. It does feel like the experience of love. And it's like, people are just so excited to come to work and do good work because they know what they're going to get in exchange is greater than they've ever gotten before in any other job.


Do you think that the past year has been a kind of boon for recognizing the importance of heart-centered leadership? Is it too soon to tell?


No. I think it's obvious that that's the case. Right? I mean, think about it. Just think about the experience where people are working. We know a lot of people are working from their bed. If you're just fresh out of college and you've got three, four roommates and you're living in an apartment, and everybody's working from home, just think about the challenges of that. Or if you're husband and wife or partners are home and you've got a kid or two, I mean, life is just craziness. Right? And so if you know that you've got a boss that is not scheduling an 8:00 in the morning, all hands on deck, conference call every day just to make sure people are working and that they're trusting you to do the job and they're there for you, people are like, this is who I want to work for. This is the kind of person that I want to work for.

And so when we go back to work in the offices, whether that's full-time or hybrid, whatever it becomes, people are going to want the same thing. They're not going to say, Oh, well, now that I'm back in the office, you can go back to your old ways. So what I think it's done is that I kind of was hoping truthfully that the manager who wasn't this way before would learn, that they would be forced to adapt, and I'm not so sure that many did. I think what happened is, is that the people that were already managing that way doubled down on it and made themselves look like warriors, just the consummate leader. This is the kind of leadership that people are responding to.

So interestingly, there's also research that shows that the number of resumes that are being uploaded onto LinkedIn and the time that people are spending on LinkedIn is considerably greater than any time in the last several years, and there's no jobs. There's 10, 11 million people unemployed in America, so this wouldn't be the ideal time to be looking for a job. What it signifies is that people are getting ready. They're looking. They want to have all their ducks in a row so when the economy turns around and the COVID is behind us, then people can say, okay, I'm ready to go. So that's your engagement issue again. If people are spending all that time doing that, they're saying I didn't get what I needed when I needed it and I'm never going to forget it.


So, on the whole, do you think business is learning?


Yeah. but it's slow. It... I mean, it's a complicated question because some people are getting it on an individual level. The interaction that I have with people, whether it's in social media or... you know what I mean? People are listening to my own podcast and that kind of stuff. I get a sense that just by interaction, by numbers, that more individual managers are getting on board with this. But what I'm not really seeing yet are companies saying specifically, we need to make sure that everyone who works here has somebody like this to work for. Meaning somebody who can drive results, which is the principal goal of the leadership. So we must never lose sight of the fact that you have a business to run and managers and leaders need to get those results. But at the same time, demonstrate care and compassion and empathy, which all sound really weak until you understand the impact of them. And to understand that it's just humane. You know? It's like treat people that way while expecting them to deliver great results. And if you can balance that...

The problem is that we tend to be one or the other. So you can be caring and then go, Oh, it's okay. You didn't meet your goal this month. Don't worry about it. Well, you're not going to stay long in leadership if that's what you're thinking. Right? But at the same time, if all you're thinking about is where are you on this? When are you going to hit this goal? I need three more widgets sold this month from you, whatever, pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, that's sort of the way we've done it, and that just doesn't work anymore. So it has to be this combination of caring, compassion and I'll even say it, demanding. You can be demanding as long as you're supporting people. If all you are is demanding and you're not supporting people, people end up becoming resentful and they leave.


What do you feel like we've lost or gained in the past year in terms of progress in the workforce, progress in leadership?


I think a lot of managers just went into survival mode. When you go into survival mode, who are you thinking about most? Yourself, right? And so if you were capable of thinking beyond yourself and thinking about how other people are experiencing life, that turns on a light inside of you. That changes how you manage people, and I'm hoping that that happened to a lot of people. I'm hoping that... what are we, like 15 months into this, 14? Something like that. Well, actually, that's not true. We're just actually hitting about a year right now from the time that we all sort of left our offices. That's a long time to not learn. Right? So I'm hoping that that's kind of where we are. But I think what's going to happen now is that we have this sort of...

Everybody has a different opinion about what worked for them. I would like to work back in my office, or I would like to have three days in the office and two days at home, or I would like to have four days in the office and one day at home, or four days in home and one day in the office. So everybody's got all these different variations, and I think what's going to happen is there's going to be this clash where companies are going to say, this is not manageable. We don't have the capacity to wonder where's Brent today? I was really hoping he was going to be here and now he's not here and I really wanted to talk to him. And so you're going to create all these weird frustrations because people are going to go into the office and the people that they need to see aren't there, and then they're going to go, why did I even come into the office? I could just as easily be here, but my company wants me to be here. And then you're going to have all this social pressure where some managers are going to be in the office five days a week. And then people are going to go, well, I'm not being seen and I'm not being heard and I'm not going to get promoted. I'm not going to have high ratings if I don't go into the office.

So all of this stuff has to be worked out. And do you sense... do you get the anxiety that I think this is all going to create for people and managers too? Because there's just something really easy about getting out of your chair and going down the hall and going into somebody's office and say, Hey, you got a minute? That doesn't exist anymore. So if we accommodate people, we're never going to find the perfect match because everybody has experienced it differently. Like I have my former assistant, a woman who edited my book, we worked together now for like 25 years. and she's a massive introvert. So when this all happened, three months into it, I said, "You must be loving this." And she goes, "I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I can't wait to go back." And I was like, "Really? How much do you want to go back?" She goes, "I want to be back in the office every day. I like going into an office. I like being around people. Yes, I'm introverted and I'll do my work. But that's what I like." And it was just like this light went off inside of me and was like, wow, everybody's experiencing this differently.

So no matter where companies come down and declare, you're going to be... it's going to ruffle somebody. You know? I don't want to be in the office four days a week, or I really don't want to work from home three days a week. Whatever it is that companies are going to decide, and I think it's going to be hard for managers to make this transition and say, well, this is my way or the highway, or even managing it, and knowing that some people are in the office frequently and some people aren't and how do you keep those people that aren't in fresh of mind and constant communication? So it's going to really... this whole experience is coming and it may be more demanding than what we just experienced.


If a pandemic can't get companies to move the needles in terms of how they perceive leadership, what is it going to take to move the needle?


That's a good question. So we don't know that it didn't for some companies. Right? We just... I just am absolutely certain that it hasn't happened to the extent that it needs to. So you've got like all these... like if he plants grass seed on just dirt, you start to see little specks of green start popping up. But in the initial stages, it's not like a complete lush lawn. Right? And I think that's still where we're at, where it's sparse in places, it's not embodied through the entire organization and companies, haven't made the pivot to say, this is who we're going to be. This is why we have to be this, and we're going to change and we're going to start to hire people differently. We're going to hire different people for management leadership roles. We're definitely not there. There's no question we're not there.

And so I used to think, honestly, that... I'm so convinced in what I'm talking about here, what we're talking about here, that there's now plenty... I have the direct experience of managing people this way my whole career, and I got incredible performance out of people, so I wasn't really hard to persuade that this isn't the right way to go for the future and that we needed to. But since then, the science has really just been coming out like a printing press and just validating that we've got it all wrong. People aren't rational beings, they're emotional beings, and we need to be thinking about how we manage to that. And so you look at that and you think, well, isn't that enough? And then when you realize the impact on people, when you manage people this way in the creation of wellbeing and the human thriving, I just thought some smart CEOs are going to go, this is the future. This is the way we to go, and it hasn't really happened in that way.

So then you think, okay, well, we just went through the pandemic, that had to have done it. And again, maybe it's because it's been such a weird year that no one's really said they'd taken a 360 view of this and said, okay, this is our moment in time to change the culture. I think some may be doing that, but not enough. So what's it going to take? Sadly, it's going to take losing people and not being able to recruit people because your reputation is not a caring and supportive environment. And with social media and people able to exchange information about what's it like to work in your company, I think that's going to be the blow when leaders start to realize that they're not getting the best talent. They're not getting the best people. They're not getting people at all, and they're losing people. I think that's when they're going to say, okay, we got to do it. So sadly, it's not going to be nobility. It's going to be a response to loss that requires most organizations to change.


You know, I think one thing that the last year has really brought to the forefront too, is the idea that companies have such a big part in the mental health of their people, which we referenced a little bit before. How do you think companies can move forward to keep that in mind and steward the impact of their actions on their people in terms of their mental health?


Don't treat the outcomes, treat the root cause. That's the answer. We want to quickly look for remedies, but we're not looking at what's causing the problem. Now, one of the reasons that people are having mental health issues certainly is because of the loss of connection, and the heart is where we connect. We don't connect in our heads. We connect in our hearts. And I remember reading something years ago that said that feelings of loneliness are nature's way of saying go out and be with people. I'm feeling lonely, so go be with people. So it implies that that human wellbeing is absolutely dependent upon having successful relationships. In fact, the famous grant study that's been done at Harvard for the last 70 years where they tracked a whole class of students going back to, I think the 1940s until all the way through their lives, and they checked in with them once a year or once every other year and asked them what was going on in their lives. The conclusion was that relationships, close relationships, good relationships with other people is what sustains us. So we took that away from people from the last year.

Now, that's not to say that you didn't have your spouse or your partner or your children around, but many people, like, that's it. That's who you had, and that created a deprivation that was really, really significant. And I think... and by the way, one of the things that the American Heart Association is proving is that what happens to your heart affects your brain. So if you're not regularly exercising, if you're doing things that harm your heart, whether that's from a diet standpoint or a lack of exercise, stress, that there's a direct connection to what goes on in your mind, your cognitive ability is directly impacted. And so the reverse has to be true too. Right? So people are having mental health issues largely, I think, because we've taken them away from other people and we've lost that connection, but we've also created really stressful kinds of lives.

Like managers don't say to people, ‘while you're working from home, your work day starts at 8:00 and ends at 5:00, and I'm not expecting you to work until 9:00 at night. And I don't want you to be sending out emails at night just because you don't have anything to do.’ And that's not to say that people won't do some of those things, but it's just telling people that there are boundaries, that I'm respecting the fact that you're working from home. Instead, it's like we just sort of allowed people to... there's research that shows that most of us have worked at least an hour a day longer every day, and that wears on you after a while. And at some point I think people become resentful of it because nobody is saying, "I don't need you to do that. I'm not expecting that." And so it's like this seductive thing where the manager's like, "Well, I don't want to tell people I don't want them working because look what they're doing. They're getting everything done."

My experience is that if you give people the boundaries and say, "I'm really not expecting you to work past 5:00 or 6:00," or whatever the number is. If you get an email after 7:00 at night, please don't look at it. I don't care. Particularly if you're a global company and they're coming in from all over the world at different hours, you don't need to respond to them until you start work the next day. If you tell somebody that, they still may do it, but they're doing it on their own choice as a sense of... instead of a sense of I'm being required to do that. And you can see the shift in how your mind works on that. One is choice. One is pleasure to do it. The other is a sense of stress. I can't sit down and have a glass of wine. I can't watch a television show because my boss is sending me emails and I've got to respond them because I don't want to look bad. This is also contributing to these mental health issues. So I think we need to look at some of those things and start to look at what's causing this. And by the way, I wrote an article about this right before this all hit and mental health costs for organizations were actually going... they're heading to a point where they're going to transcend normal physical healthcare costs. So this was happening even before.

So I do really think it boils down to how do we think about managing the whole person and their lives because it's going to blow up on companies, not only if they're having mental health care costs that companies didn't have to pay for before and physical healthcare costs, it's going to be really costly for organizations. I think it boils down to leadership and not to let's give people meditation classes or encourage them to go to the gym. Those are all good things, but that's not really what the solution needs to be.


So after a year of a completely unique situation in working and in leadership for that matter, what are things that are your kind of bright spots or your hopes? What are your rays of light? Just kind of hopeful things that you're seeing coming out of the last year, moving forward into the future.


I think we're all very much aware that if people... and I don't like to use the word happy in the context of work because it's so ambiguous. Everybody's got a different interpretation of what that means. But if people... if you can take that aside and just sort of use happy in the sense that people are content, people are feeling supported, that people do better work for you that way. I think that has to be one of the main takeaways from all this. And if you've missed that lesson, then you really shouldn't be managing people because it's been profoundly obvious. And so my hope is that based on that experience, that our collective consciousness has changed.

I told you a little while ago that I had this belief that there were going to be CEOs who read my book and got an understanding that if you manage people this way, that you will get far greater performance. Then that there would be CEOs that just say, we got to do this, and of course, that's not the way it went down. So I started thinking about so what is it? It's resistance to change. It's resistance to tradition. We've been managing people in this oppressive way for so long that it's really hard for people to change. And then people go, well, I got promoted my whole career managing this way. Why should I change? So you have all this kind of resistance.

So then my next inclination was okay, so what is it going to take, and I realized it is going to be this tipping point where our consciousness changes. Where something happened where we were forced into seeing that this is the truth, that this is indeed what we need to do and we need to reject the old ways and we need to embrace the new ways and it needs to be comprehensive in the organization. So I didn't know what the tipping point was going to be or when it was going to be, and it certainly has taken longer than I expected. But what that tipping point has become is very, very clear, and it was COVID. This pandemic is that force of nature that I think over the next few years is going to require companies to take a really deep look at who's managing their people and making decisions about keeping or not keeping people in those roles, dependent upon how employees themselves say it feels to work for them, and that is a really very cool thing.

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