Leaders in modern organizations have to master the basics of the human domain. Archaic assumptions from the 100 year old technical-rational approaches only work so long and eventually backfire.

In this article, we take a deep dive into the core attributes of what I call the human OS that leaders need to be aware of.

These attributes underlie all frameworks of human performance.


The whole person  

Most work now requires knowledge, judgment, thinking, and decision making, and so it matters if people care about what they do. You cannot simply give them orders and criticism. That rarely produces the kind of engagement you need. Other, less direct but more effective forms of influence—such as support, development, and encouragement—are needed that engage the whole person.

– Linda Hill, Kent Linebeck in Being the Boss [1]

Hill and Linebeck mention engaging the whole person, except how many of us truly understand what that entails. Most of us have only a rudimentary understanding of what can be called the human OS (operating system).

The background and basis

Most competent leaders intuitively understand the importance of understanding the human OS. It is common in business literature and training to come across some form or variation of these aspects. They are what is sometimes called the soft approach to management.

Think training courses, team building, office socials, and other events, where the idea is to build a community and connection but it never really materializes. What gets positioned as caring for people is often about extracting performance in a more humane way, or at least it gets perceived that way.

These so called soft approaches tend to be superficial and downstream at the techniques and tactical level, and as a result the point gets lost in the details and so does its importance.

What is needed is an upstream, more deeper, and developed understanding of people, from which downstream tactics can emerge.

Man Without Qualities, Erik Pevernagie, via Wikimedia Commons

Further upstream

None of the frameworks mentioned below are short term fixes. Most literature in business books tend to focus on techniques and fixes, which act as temporary bandaids, never actually addressing the source of  engagement and performance or that of discontent and frustration.

By going further upstream, we can build more resilient, higher performing teams, and in the process our leadership practice also gets more richer and engaged.

The frameworks draw on a number of sources including ancient wisdom traditions, 20thcentury continental philosophy, the latest in social science and management research, leadership models, and positive psychology amongst others.

While they are rooted in rich theory, experience, and tradition, my discovery of them was through my own struggles and challenges in my managerial career. Anytime I have tried to go upstream and ascertain the core elements of why something worked or failed, including my own struggles, inevitably it led to one of these core frameworks of the human OS.

Ontological Givens, not Psychology

Business improvement is pervaded by psychology. While some basic knowledge of psychology is useful, it is not that helpful or accessible for leaders beyond a certain point.

Instead we will take a non-psychological approach. We will explore ontological realities or universal givens that are true to all of us humans just by the fact that we exist.

Because these are universal and underlie how we are constituted, they are also the foundation upon which all high performance in the human domain is built. Most techniques and tactics are based upon these core frameworks, and tend to superficially or selectively address only some of these.

There is a meta-element to understanding and mastering the human OS. Not only can we become better managers and leaders by understanding the human OS, we can also understand ourselves better and become more effective, thus setting up a virtuous loop.

While most of us realize this intuitively, not all of us have an actionable basis for working with and leveraging these human OS basics to maximize performance. The place to begin is awareness.

Some of the language and source quotes I have used can be difficult to understand at first. This is intentional on my part because I want to prompt thought. The risk with writing about these important but well-trodden topics is of coming across as cliched and trite. If it makes you take a second look at it then I have met my intent.

Let’s dive in.

1. We are temporal and future-oriented

Words like vision, mission statements, goals and objectives are thrown around so often in the corporate world that after a while we don’t pay attention to it. Part of the trouble is that we never bother looking into why these are needed to begin with. Looking into our temporal and future-oriented nature gives some clues as to why these are important.

In the grand scheme of things, we have a very limited time on earth. While this is true for other living creatures we happen to be the only ones to be aware of this fact. Our temporality comes from this awareness and many of us knowingly or unknowingly try to run away from this very basic fact of human existence.

Unlike other living creatures, human beings exist simultaneously in the past, present, and future. While the present moment is the only thing we have direct access to, we do have access to our past and future through language.

By accessing this future through language, we can change how things appear and occur to people, and as a result influence and change their actions in the present.

After all, that’s what leadership is at its most basic. Influencing and guiding the actions of those we are leading and at the same time being influenced by and guided by them.

We are always projecting ourselves forward into the future. Our actions in the present are influenced by the context of the future. The future is the ultimate context. And if there is no compelling future our actions tend to reflect it.

As leaders, our job is to create this compelling future. Not harnessing and leveraging the power of a compelling future is a missed opportunity.

2.  We are historical and thrown

Having a past makes us historical and, using the Heideggerian term, “thrown”.[2] Each of us has a unique history and we are writing that story constantly. An inanimate object or even other living creatures, do not have a past and do not have the unique mix of family, culture, and practices that makes each of us different from each other. Modern organizations tend to ignore this fact.

The systems in place assume homogeneity across the populace and so do managers. This is the reason why the same initiative throws up different responses that have nothing to do with the logic of the initiatives.

We each have been ‘thrown’ into a particular time and context, including the family that we have been born into, and the culture and community in which we find ourselves. These are limits or givens that we can accept and acknowledge, or we can oppose and resent.

– Emmy Van Deurzen and Monica Hanaway in Existential Perspectives on Coaching [3]

The situations and conditions that we find ourselves in are not always by choice. In varying amounts, there is a degree of throwness in all the situations we find ourselves in.

For example, as managers sometime the clues to our own struggles can be found by looking at the how of our own particular situation vs the what. Did we become a manager by choice or was it because that is what everyone does or that is what everyone in our family does?

How does that affect our performance? To what degree were we thrown into this particular situation that we are in now? Did we pick the team or were we handed it down along with all the associated problems? What aspects of it are within our control and what are not? The same kind of questions apply to each of our team members as well.

3. We live in and are influenced by stories

Outside of straightforward technical issues, anytime we are operating in the human realm there is no one objective reality. The same situation can be construed in ten different ways based on the person’s background, experiences, biases, and dominant mental models.

As leaders this is too important to ignore. While this makes our jobs difficult, it's also where our opportunity to make the most impact lies.

[P]eople don’t live in reality—we live in the story we tell ourselves about reality. When you tell your stories to others, such as colleagues, family, and members of your community, the stories also let you explain your actions to these loyalty groups in ways that make you appear sensible, acceptable, or impressive to them, or at least provide a rational explanation for the situation and your role in it. –

– Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky in Practice of Adaptive Leadership [4]

Most of the stubborn challenges that we face tend to be complex, adaptive problems rather than straightforward technical ones. And leaders need to have a good understanding of how language and the stories built with it influences how the situation appears to everyone. Leaders have to influence this process if they are to have any impact.

4. We are interpretative beings with our own filters and models

The radio and transmitter mode of communication is misinformed and only partially true. Just because leaders understand the problems the organization is facing and have articulated it as such, does not mean everyone understands it or even cares. Leaders have to learn to connect organizational stories with the stories inside their people’s heads.

Relying on the logic of the argument is not enough. Communication does not always equate understanding.

This is why working with the intended audience is almost as important, if not more important, as working with the person who is delivering the message. Most traditional ways of looking at communication focus on the methods, frequency and content of the messenger. But this is only one side of the equation.

5. We live in biological time, not clock time

Change is hard and does not happen overnight. When rolling out initiatives across the organization, we allocate a period of time and a rate of adoption. And the same goes for messages to be adopted, attitudes to be changed and new skills to be learned.

Why do we expect it be any faster when it comes to individuals on our team? The same goes for our own developmental efforts. How many things have we not tried simply because of the amount of time and effort it might take?

6. We have a need to care about something

As humans, we always care about something. Even the person in our team who says, “I don't care” does care about “not caring”.

In fact, it is a constitutive characteristic of being human, that it always points and is directed to something other than itself…Only to the extent that someone is living out this self-transcendence of human existence, is he truly human or does he become his true self.

– Viktor Frankl  [5]

As leaders, it's our job to figure out what that something is. Without knowing what the other person cares about it's very hard to motivate action.

Here, then, is the source of “keeping up with the Joneses,” the genesis of the human preoccupation with looking good, being right, and coming out ahead: we develop a concern for the success of our concerns, those concerns that we are and with whose fate we identify our selves. In the Heideggerian model, this inevitable thrownness to self-concern is simply part of the existential structure of human beings; it comes with the territory of being human.

– Bruce Hyde & Jeffery Bineham

The concept of “care” is also connected with meaning and purpose. When we don’t care our endeavors feel meaningless and purposeless leading to frustration and disappointment.

If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how.

– Nietzsche

All of us have a basic need to stand for something. Although often we are not aware of this need. We tend to stumble upon this fact after much trial and tribulation.

7. We live in language and so does leadership

There is more to language that just a means to convey what already is. Human reality is built in language. Everything we say or do, always lives in language. Even our most intimate thoughts are constructed in language.

This means whatever we construct is limited by the availability of language to us. Change the language and we potentially change how things are occurring to us. This is so obvious and so near to us that we fail to notice it, and also the reason why language is an underutilized aspect in leadership.

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world .

-Ludwig Wittgenstein [8]

Leadership lives in language and happens through it. Leaders who are unaware of this fact, miss out on an entire dimension of existence, and lose opportunities to leverage language.

8. We seek meaning and purpose

As humans we seek meaning and purpose in everything we do. Regardless of our awareness of it, without either of these, we tend to struggle in whatever we are doing. We are most engaged and productive when we are directly connected with the meaning and purpose of what we were doing.

9.  Meaning & purpose cannot be transmitted or borrowed

When it comes to meaning and purpose, humans are closed systems. Meaning and purpose has to come from within rather than borrowed from someone or out of obligation. Partly because of overuse and partly a lack of understanding, we don’t necessarily have an actionable way of leveraging them despite their importance.

What trips most people is the “search” for “inherent” meaning and purpose in what we do because there might not be any. Meaning and purpose are more created than found. And this is both disorienting and enlightening at the same time.

If we have been looking for meaning and purpose this is disorienting. But it's also liberating.

This is especially relevant for leadership because it means we cannot manufacture or supply meaning and purpose to our teams. We have to help them connect organizational goals with whatever gives them meaning and purpose.

Truly empowered workers, such as doctors in a hospital, even bees in a hive, do not await gifts from their managerial gods; they know what they are there to do and just do it. As Len Sayles put it: “Intrinsic job satisfaction can only be obtained by the employees themselves. It can’t be handed out on a platter”. In fact, a good deal of what is today called “empowerment” is really just getting rid of years of disempowerment .

– Henry Mintzberg in Managing [9]

We look for order, meaning, and rules, where there might not be any thus causing plenty of pain and confusion. This is especially true in organizations and careers.

10. Authenticity & integrity directly affect performance

In modern workplaces, authenticity and integrity tend to be thought of as virtues with tones of good vs bad. Upon closer look, and without taking a normative good vs bad stance, both integrity and authenticity are directly linked to performance. Without them, high performance is hard to reach and even harder to sustain.

We work at our personal best when we are authentic with ourselves. This means we are in alignment with our meaning and purpose. Anytime we are out of alignment, we are out of integrity and authenticity with ourselves, and hence not operating at our full capacity.

Integrity is important to individuals, groups, organizations and society because it creates workability. Without integrity, the workability of any object, system, person, group or organization declines; and as workability declines, the opportunity for performance declines. Therefore, integrity is a necessary condition for maximum performance.

– Michael Jensen & Werner Erhard in Creating Leaders [10]

This is doubly true for leadership positions. Not only does it affect leadership performance but also that of teams. There is proven research showing how integrity and consistency in leaders affects follower actions.

11. Seeking certainty through work

While not always recognized or even acknowledged, all of us come with expiration dates. Our existence by its very nature is uncertain. And one place we try to reduce this uncertainty is through our work and our workplaces.

Leaders play a crucial role in how this plays out.

Work can be experienced as a place to find meaning. We can also use it as a guard against uncertainty; through committing to a leader we can access a belief system which appears to offer a level of certainty, provide structure, offset responsibility and thus safeguard us from existential freedom by ‘seemingly’ limiting our choices.

Leadership offers itself as a piece in this existential puzzle. It is a symbol of security, power and control for those who lead, and for those who follow.Through work or other projects we can devote ourselves to something greater than self.

– Monica Hanaway in Existential Leader [11]

We do not like uncertainty and yet that is the only guaranteed aspect of human life.  Leaders who understand this basic fact have a leg up. They understand that people tend to look up to them, often unknowingly, to reduce their existential anxiety around uncertainty.

While the idea is not to give falsehoods or false promises, just being aware of this fact makes us deliver our message in a different manner than otherwise. The effective manager has to toe this fine line.

12. We are not always rational

The technical-rational paradigm that modern organizations are built on has an underlying assumption that we are always pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, profit-maximizing rational beings.

However as fields like behavioral economics have proved conclusively, this is not always the case. We are interpretive beings who interpret situations from our own lenses, mental models, biases, assumptions, and stories. We are not plain rational entities operating in an objective reality. The very interpretation of that reality is subject to our perception.

Any manager who works under the assumption of 100% rationality is only going to be disappointed. This is when we say “they just don’t get it”, except from “their” perspective the situation is as real as it gets.

By looking at irrational human beings not as a liability but rather as “conditions of the game” we can significantly alter our approach for greater effectiveness.

13.  We have the freedom to choose. We are always choosing.

Managerial decisions are never straightforward and always come with a good dose of paradox, ie by definition it cannot be eliminated. Even when we decide to not choose we are choosing the default. Freedom and choice are coupled inextricably with anxiety.

We all face a dilemma in taking responsibility, ie whether to take the initiative and exercise our freedom to act despite the unknown consequences, or whether to take the easier way out. It is how we face this dilemma that determines the extent to which we are empowered; the extent to which we lead.

Freedom is not the ability to act without consequences. Freedom is the ability to choose to act without compulsion and face the consequences, some or most of which may be unknown at the point of decision.

– Reynolds, Houlder, Goddard, Lewis [12]

14. Human existence is paradoxical and so is work. Leaders influence how it shows up.

Modern work is full of paradoxes and leaders play a pivotal role in how we navigate these paradoxes. Work can be both meaningless and meaningful, purposeless and purposeful at the same time.

We may enjoy working with our team and that same team makes our lives complicated. We have to be self-reliant and yet be trusting of others enough to delegate.  We may want to be independent and yet like the camaraderie and community that our workplaces provide.

Many workplaces don’t encourage emotions while still operating on the rational-technical model but emotions are an integral part of being a human being. Latest research in neuroscience and behavioral economics has proven conclusively that you cannot separate emotions from human decision making.

“Svp “Arrêt sur image” , Erik Pevernagie, via Wikimedia Commons

15. We can become powerful observers of ourselves (self-detachment)

The organizational view of improvement tends to be primarily around assessment and feedback typically from the direct line manager. In more enlightened organizations this goes a step further by soliciting 360 degree feedback from all stakeholders involved instead of just one person.

But most of us don’t necessarily know what to do with the feedback. Neither do most know how to give feedback. So we end up having the same conversations from one year to the next.

What does not get as much attention is that we can become powerful observers of ourselves. Observation and reflection leading to increased awareness can be powerful change agents that leverage the unique human ability of self-detachment. This is what Adam Smith called “impartial spectator”.

The human ability to step back and study ourselves, to examine and change the ways in which we frame our experiences, our behavior, our histories, our cognitive and situational constraints, and even the ubiquitous nature of human language…Adam Smith calls this taking a “impartial spectator” approach.

This spectator phenomenon or epiphenomenon is an explanatory idea that accounts for how it is that we can step back from ourselves and not only study ourselves and our histories, but also make choices and direct or redirect our lives

– Patricia Werhane [13]

Unfortunately this unique human ability does not get enough attention in organizations. Somehow organizations do not trust individuals themselves for their own development. Given the right frameworks and alignment, individuals can design their own development much better than any organization can.


Hopefully these frameworks gave you a different perspective on people and performance. While my articulation on these concepts is still elementary, my own experience of these always rang true.

These are human universals that stay the same regardless of company, situation and culture. Go against this and everything tends to be a struggle. Work with it and you can reach the peaks of human performance.


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Footnotes/References

  1. Being the Boss by Linda Hill & Kent Linebeck.
  2. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger.
  3. Existential Perspectives on Coaching by Emmy Van Deurzen and Monica Hanaway.
  4. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky.
  5. Viktor Frankl as quoted in Meaningful Work by Beate Von Devivere.
  6. Listening Authentically by R Bruce Hyde in Interpretive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication.
  7. Friedrich Nietszche.
  8. Wittgenstein as quoted in Leadership and the Limitations of Language by Wiley Souba, Matthew Souba.
  9. Managing by Henry Mintzberg
  10. Jensen, Michael C., Werner Erhard, and Kari L. Granger. “Creating Leaders: An Ontological/Phenomenological Model.” Chap. 16 in The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing, and Being, edited by Scott Snook, Nitin Nohria, and Rakesh Khurana.
  11. The Existential Leader by Monica Hanaway
  12. What Philosophy can Teach You About Being a Better Leader by Alison Reynolds, Dominic Houlder, Jules Goddard, and David Lewis.
  13. Patricia Werhane elaborates on the impartial spectator in this paper in the Philosophy of Management journal.

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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