Management. The very word evokes pictures that, I would suggest, few people are comfortable with. It evokes images and feelings of power, and the struggles that relate to that power; it makes us think of one person who has ultimate say over work, process and procedure; the person who is accountable for others’ work, and is responsible for areas of business function. The manager also has the say over whether or not someone’s behaviour, or attitude, or output, is desirable, and efficient; this person even has final say over whether or not you retain your job.
In some industries, your first level managers are referred to as team leaders. Above those leaders, you have managers. It’s all a matter of semantics, and it is all incorrect, I would suggest. In order to re-think management and leadership styles, we need to re-think the terminology.
A leader is someone very different from someone who is a manager. If you lead a team, you are first and foremost part of that team. It presupposes that you are on deck, doing the work. You have enough knowledge and skill and capacity to assist the other people in your team, and in times of trouble, people defer to you for guidance. You lead by example, so you are, in essence, the Shining Star of an employee: you are never off sick, rarely late, work to 100% of your capacity all the time. You embody whatever the company values are; you lead by example in terms of behaviours. You are, in fact, a model employee: one that is willing to get his or her hands dirty.
The truth is that you are actually a manager of your team, you are not part of your team. If you are part of your team, you are too close, and it makes managing undesirable behaviours and attitudes extremely difficult. But at the same time, you can’t be a distanced manager who is unwilling to do the work, because your job is fixing, advising, helping, assisting, and mentoring.
I am a team leader, in a very large company. I manage an average-sized team, a size that is starting to be seen as “small” rather than “average”, due to company growth and the inability or unwillingness of the company to provide an effective management structure.
My team has seven team members. They are high performers, always working to beyond their capacity, at a pace that would put many people out of action. What they don’t know, they learn quickly, and they are literally keeping two divisions of one arm of the company functioning. It’s a big role, and not one that they ever have time to look at, think about, peruse, or philosophise over. If they did, it would take them some time to reconcile their daily jobs with the bigger picture.
In contrast, I think about it a lot of the time. It’s why they are on an hourly rate, and I am on a salary. What occupies the majority of my thinking time? Whether leading a team is what I need to be doing; whether managing the team is what I need to be doing; or whether being a mentor, life hacker, and educator is what I need to be doing. And if I decide which way I go, how much of my daily time do I need to spend doing it, as opposed to how much of my day does my company tell me to spend doing it?
As I have highly skilled team, I am not a trainer. I must needs coach to behaviours and attitudes, not skills. Skills I help with, but that is not my function.
And so, this means that I am a mentor, life hacker, and educator. From effective education and culture, you don’t have to “manage” people; and by not being just a leader of the team, I have a far more important role to play.
Significant social roles, as addressed by Western culture, have, to me, a very limited view. They are populist, capitalist, market-driven. They are not necessarily people-driven, or spiritually driven. Which is why, for the purposes of this essay, I am going to take the long view. Stepping back from the perspective of a white leader of a small team in a global company, I cast my eyes back in time and across the seas, and go visiting Asia.
The Chinese aesthetic is one that has always had vast appeal to me. The appeal arises in part from the fact that Chinese civilisation is the longest, continuous civilisation in the world. Another part is because historicity and historical value resides in the people, in what people write and leave behind, and not in things. It is a cultural and spiritual history, rendering their buildings and artifacts of lesser importance than original works written and painted by its people; therefore, the people live the culture and the history, giving the culture itself greater longevity. And the third part is that of the Confucian view of what education means.
By ‘Confucian’, let us not think of Mao and political tools that have become synonymous with a particular school of thought. Let us go back to a more accurate view, and take the thinker at face value.
In the writings and philosophy of Confucius, we find that there is a defined split between education and culture on the one hand, and technique and training on the other.
The eminent essayist Stephen Leys writes that at no point – then, or now – has there been an effective method of reconciling the two. Giving it long consideration, and due pause, one almost needs to admit that he is correct.
I say ‘almost’ because it is true in the sense that the two cannot occur at the same time. Technique and training are separate but complementary; education and culture occurs in a different mental and philosophical realm from technique and training. Where technique and training occurs at certain stages, education and culture is continuous, ongoing, and life long.
To fully consider the differences between the two ‘arms’ of thought here, we must understand what they mean. ‘Education and culture’ refers to the learning of humanity. Not ‘humanity’ meaning ‘the people of the planet’, as it has come to be known, but ‘humanity’ as in ‘self and spirit’.
To Confucius, a gentleman was not born into a gentlemanly status; he earned it, by learning, through education. (And by education, we now understand the learning of self and spirit to learn humanity – essentially art and philosophy of life.)
The other side of things relates to skill. Technique and training. The things, the crafts, that can be taught and refined, and used for professional purposes, to earn a wage. You can become a master of a particular technique or skill, and then train others. But it does not make you an educated person.
Digesting these notions, I pull my eyes back to my role. I am not a trainer, and I do not teach technique. I do not manage; I mentor and guide and encourage certain positive attitudes and behaviours, while gently discouraging negative attitudes and behaviours. Therefore, my role is one of educator. Unwittingly, and unknowingly so, until this point of reflection, my style of educator and mentor has been one of spirit, self, and culture. My role is to encourage those who work with me and for me to grow as people; to create a wholeness that they can carry with them outside of work and into their broader lives, thus enriching them rather than telling them how to do what they already know to do.
I am therefore what has come to be commonly known as a ‘life hacker’, a mentor, a person who can help you achieve amazing things because everything is possible, provided you are schooled in self-awareness, mindfulness, a sense of wellbeing, a sense of others, and a broader vision that pulls your mentality up and off your desk and out of your own little workspace corner.
Giving myself pause to consider this wonderful prospect, I have been contemplating whether this is truly the role of managers of all kinds. We spend the majority of our time with the people whom we manage. Out of my day, I spend a minimum of 8 of the best hours of my waking time with these people; the remainder is for family and home life, but the hours in the day I spend with my most important people are not the best hours of my day. I am tired, less alert, seeking down time rather than interaction. My team members – in fact, nearly anybody who works – are the same.
Therefore, in playing such a significant role in these people’s lives, team leaders and managers have a significant, nay, overbearing, responsibility for the continuing education of the members in their teams.
‘Lifelong learning’ is not the catch-phrase people think it is, in referring to learning things for the rest of your life; it is an internal awareness and continuation of learning that none but the most enlightened seek for themselves. It is easy to find a role, a job, that doesn’t include mentoring and coaching as part of its benefits. I am lucky to have a role where my mentoring and coaching responsibility is to mentor and coach specifically to attitudes and behaviours, as opposed to output, or scripts, or KPIs.
Educating my team members is therefore about increasing their sense of humanity; helping them to reach greater personal heights, ones that will stand them in good stead wherever they end up. It’s the coaching and mentoring to behaviours that are a direct outcome of their spiritual standing that makes the notion of being a continuing educator so exciting.
With this, we can also go back to China. We can even go back to a popular representation of Chinese philosophy, in the 1970s TV show Monkey. “The Father Buddha said, ‘With our thoughts, we make the World’.” So, too, with our thoughts and inner attitudes, we behave in a particular way, one that creates and influences the world around us.
It is a truism that you can educate all you like, but the embedding of a learning does not happen until it is expressed by that person in his or her own, unique way, or is paid forwards. It is for this very reason, that being competent in ‘education and culture’, in Confucius’ writings and philosophy will give you gentlemanly status; but also that none but the gentleman will achieve competence. This is because ‘a gentleman practices the arts in order to realise his own humanity’.
In other words, those who seek to achieve a height of humanity will only do so, and only realise it, through an artistic medium that forces internal reflection.
Thus is the challenge for a thinker amongst men and women who have been coached out of thought or art or philosophy by the very society that raised them. Very few employees will stop to consider why you are attempting to make them aware of their positive thinking, or how it would apply to their lives. Similarly, they will look at the notion of Not Knowing, and believe that you have lost your marbles, despite its actual, practical application to their working lives and their personal lives. Such a perspective leads naturally to a complete resistance; overcoming such resistance will take further discussion at another time.
Employees they may be; but under the educational leader’s wing, they become students of life, and should learn more about themselves and their own humanity than about anything else.
Although the Corporate World has very little time for philosophy, or, indeed, for humanity itself, the benefits of being a life hacker mentor are unlimited. They have been aptly demonstrated by bloggers such as Tim Ferris and Leo Barbuta, whose works around creating minimalism and Zen-like habits, have become deservedly famous. These writers are not famous because they tried to be; but because those who read their works understand a basic truth in them.
That truth is, if you are educated and cultured (that is, if you are self-aware and mindful, and you practise and shepherd your humanity), then the benefits to the Corporate World are significant. Such benefits include:
- greater efficiency
- greater employee retention
- lower rates of absence
- better teamwork
- a greater sense of collective achievement
- improvements to one’s ability to effectively analyse and create strategies for approaching same-same high level priorities that don’t change
- increases in positive customer interactions and experiences
- a resulting increase in brand loyalty.
Additionally, it improves intra-company communications, reduces conflict, reduces stress, and is vital to stakeholder management.
Management, at whatever level, is therefore a much higher-order responsibility than any position description would have you believe. Additionally, if you are a manager, you are unable to effective work in this way unless you yourself are educated and cultured, to the same level – or are working towards it yourself.
It may appear, on the surface, to be a rather fluffy and philosophical way of thinking about leadership, teams, corporate responsibility, and management tactics But if you build your humanity into everything that you do, and you lead by example, then you will play a key role in the lives of your employees, both inside and outside of the workplace.
You are also in a better position to become that encouraging life hacker, and help them to understand that even though working is but one part of their lives, it can be an integral part of their broader lives, too. It is helping them to understand themselves and how they relate to the world: truly life-long learning, and not something you will obtain in schools or courses, which only focus on technique and training.