May 30, 2022 7 min read

Leaders have to Master Basics of the Human OS

The recent mass exodus of employees even from well-paid professional jobs has come as a wake-up call to the corporate world in the race to retain talent. But this should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Leadership and management happen in the human domain. But most organizational systems are still based in 100 year old mechanical paradigms. Managers cannot afford to ignore the basics of the human OS that drive performance and retention.

The most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.

– John Naisbitt [1]

Current technical-rational paradigm ignores how human beings are

We are in the third decade of the twenty first century and yet many of the practices in management derive from models dating back to pre World War II.

For almost a 100 years the corporate world has operated under a technical-rational paradigm which gained momentum during the early twentieth century advent of machines and then infiltrated into all areas of work and life including the human domain.

In time, the new science method was applied to the management of human behavior and became the authoritative way of determining practice in the human realm.

-Donald Polkinghorne in Practice and the Human Sciences [2]

This techno-rational orientation essentially ignores the fact that human beings are different from the world of machines and matter, and expects the same kind of predictability from them.

It's common amongst managers to assume or at least behave with the assumption that organizations and teams exist in a mechanical, newtonian cause-effect world. Any experienced leader knows from hard-earned experience that it's never that straightforward or predictable when working with people and organizations.

James Flaherty likens this to a mechanic operating on a car :

[Leaders] live in a very different world than other people who are working on improving situations.

For example, an auto mechanic who works on Volvos really does not have to be concerned with the individuality of a car that shows up at his garage. Knowing that it will be a 1993 850 Turbo with 37,000 miles is all he really needs to know. Of course, working with human beings is much different.

Should [leaders] consider their [people] to be biocomputers that they need to program, or are they stimulus response machines that merely need the correct stimulus? Or are they products of historical, political, and economic courses?

– James Flaherty in Coaching [3]

The stance is always that of “being separate from” and “doing something to”.

Practical action in the human realm requires working with others who are themselves actors with their own goals and intentions.

Practice in the human realm cannot be regarded as simply the implementation of techniques or the administration of a program to passive entities who submit to the [leader’s] efforts.

Its goals are accomplished, not by doing something to people, but by assisting them to reach their own practical goals.

-Donald Polkinghorne in Practice and the Human Sciences [2]

The approach is to “implement this technique/that strategy”. In other words “doing something to” instead of the alternative of “working with” as in working with a system to see what emerges.

Managers want to boil it down to a technique that is repeatable and has predictable results with machine-like efficiency.

Of course this ends up being a frustrating endeavor because the underlying expectation is for the human domain to work and react predictably in the same way as material domains, which doesn't always pan out as planned. At least not in the long-term.

The ideology of leadership and management that underpins large-scale human organizations today is as limiting to organizational success as the ideology of feudalism was limiting to economic success in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

– Gary Hamel [4]

Leadership and management are in the human domain, not of matter and machines

Imagine how hard physics would be if particles could think.

- Murray Gell-Mann

So what's this different world of leadership that Flaherty is talking about?

Human beings simultaneously live in the physical, organic, and human domains. Language and meaning are paramount in the human domain making us radically different from not just matter and machines but also other living creatures.

Leadership thus lives in the domain of human meaning and consists of languaged interactions through which this meaning is accessed, enabled, and modified. [2]

But it's easy to forget this. Savio Kwan, former President and COO of Alibaba, put it this way:

As business leaders we have an innate feeling that we have to have our team follow us and through them we achieve extraordinary results together.

Unfortunately our business training and education all tend to focus on the tangible – results, KPIs, budgets and measurements, and through time these turn the focus upside down and our people somehow become means to an end rather than ends themselves and we become trapped in inhumane work environments over and over again.

– Savio Kwan, former President and COO of Alibaba [5]

Perhaps inhumane is going to one extreme, but research has extensively shown that managerial soft-skills have a direct influence on the performance of their organizations .

Working against the human OS instead of leveraging it doesn't bode well for peak performance and results that directly affect the bottomline.

The difference between efficiency and effectiveness is as important in this realm as it is in any other, and it is a bad bargain to gain the first at the expense of the second.

It means …not forgetting that people bring their humanity to work with them every single day, and that until we find a way to engage the emotional life of the workplace we will not succeed in meeting our most important goals.

It means recognizing that hard-and-fast divisions between the public and the private, between “the work realm” and “the personal,” are naive and unproductive

– Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey in Immunity to Change [6]

The challenge is that organizations try to impose rules from the physical domain of matter and machines assuming that the same tactics would work in the domain of human beings. But humans operate in a different domain, the domain of meaning and language.

Most complex challenges that leaders face involve the human OS

Richard Kilburg while writing about the complexity that leaders face every day emphasized the role of the human domain in adding to that complexity.

I have come to believe that leaders and management teams function as human shock absorbers for organizations. Coping with internal and external problems forms the foundation of managerial work, and these problems almost always consist of some form of human conflict.

Adding the internal dynamics and personal histories of everyone involved, the complexity and difficulty of managerial work should cease to surprise anyone.

– Richard Kilburg in Executive Wisdom [7]

Most of the challenges with leading people and organizations, beyond the more straight-forward and well-defined technical issues, tend to be in the human domain. Thus, leaders cannot afford to be out of alignment or unaware of the basics of the human OS .

Leaders have direct access to the human OS

While human beings are not mechanical and predictable, there certainly are aspects of our existence common to all of us. Managers have to be both aware of and competent in leveraging these aspects in both their teams and themselves.

The good news is that leaders have direct access to this domain because they go through those exact same challenges and use the same “operating system”.

Leaders know this instinctively if they are patient and quiet enough inside their own heads. The constraints and possibilities of the human OS apply equally to leaders as much as it applies to organizations and teams.

Superb leadership begins with understanding the being aspect of human being. What it is to be a leader is inextricably linked to what it is to be human.

You … have direct access to what it is to be human. It’s the only entity to which you have direct access. And through accessing what it is to be human-and who you really are—you can access what it is to be a leader.

– Wiley Souba in The Phenomenology of Leadership [8]

Another pleasant side effect is that once you understand and become competent in these human dimensions, your effectiveness as a leader increases not just at work but in your personal life as well.

Understanding the human OS underlies leadership and is directly tied to performance

Over the past couple of decades there is a mounting evidence of research linking soft skills with leadership effectiveness and organizational performance.

Soft skills are the most sought after but also one of the most difficult ones to obtain. [9]

Mastering the basics of the human OS is an opportunity for improvement for most leaders. By being extremely focussed on delivering results and still operating in the technical-rational paradigm they end up ignoring the basics of the human OS and inadvertently hurting performance and results.

Alan Hedman puts it this way:

This so-called soft stuff (empathy, trust, listening, and communication skills) has consistently been shown to produce gains, innovations, and accomplishments by individuals, teams, and organizations.

Its absence is frequently the cause of organizational mediocrity and even disintegration. If you think about it, most of the embarrassing gaffes described in Dilbert cartoons are directly related to problems of empathy, trust, authenticity, genuineness, and communication.

– Alan Hedman in Psychology of Executive Coaching [10]

So what are these aspects of the human OS that leaders need to master and how do you go about accessing them? Why is it that we continue to ignore them?

A good result

Below is one of many examples of how organizations and people flourish when leadership understands the basics of the human OS and lets people be human beings.

While not applicable to all setups it highlights the enormous ground to be gained by moving from a technical-rational stance to a more human-centered one.

By dispensing with control, with management, [Perutz] was purposefully placing the emphasis on the individual scientist to perform according to his own or her own passion and ambition. He was treating people as individuals with their own personal agency.

The lab was successful not because attention was focused on its performance, but because everything revolved around the individual and the conditions that were most conducive to their practice – their specialism and natural desire to develop mastery of their subject. Perutz did not perceive his colleagues as human resources. They were persons, who would surely flourish if treated as persons.

Reynolds, Houlder, Goddard & Lewis [11]

Leaders have to ask : what model of human beings are we assuming to be working with? Is it one of humans as machines aka human doings/resources, or is it one of humans as beings aka human beings/homo sapiens?

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Footnotes & References

  1. John Naisbitt as quoted in Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.
  2. Practice and the Human Sciences by Donald Polkinghorne.
  3. Coaching by James Flaherty.
  4. Gary Hamel as quoted in Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.
  5. Savio Kwan as quoted in What Philosophy can Teach You About Being a Better Leader by Alison Reynolds, Dominic Houlder, Jules Goddard & David Lewis.
  6. Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey.
  7. Executive Wisdom by Richard Kilburg.
  8. The Phenomenology of Leadership by Wiley Souba.
  9. Self-awareness and leadership by Arthur Rubens, Gerald Schoenfeld, Bryan Schaffer, Joseph Leah.
  10. Alan Hedman in The Psychology of Executive Coaching by Bruce Peltier.
  11. What Philosophy can Teach You About Being a Better Leader by Alison Reynolds, Dominic Houlder, Jules Goddard & David Lewis.
Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at
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