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To be human after all

“Organisations are non-entities, people are organisations”.

Dr Aravind Srinivasan, Aravind Eye Care System

However much we like to imagine we’re in control of Connect, we know what happens in the room (garden, tent, field, amphitheatre) and what plays out in each of our minds as we walk away cannot be planned.

Take this year’s Reconnect at Sheepdrove in June…

The tone was set not by us but by Dr Aravind. A leader invited from India to tell the story of an extraordinary and successful social business, Aravind Eye Care System, who asked Wavelength if he could also to share his reflections as a 48 year old man. Thankfully we said yes, because from these came a theme that could be seen as having defined the two days: the importance of humanity in leadership. While zooming in on this could seem a little trite we all know that the pressures of leadership can at times make us a little less human.

So, as Connect 2017 concludes, here’s what we learned in the scorching Berkshire countryside, about being and staying human as leaders.

1. Humans have brains and bodies

It was only after being diagnosed with anxiety-fuelled depression that Geoff McDonald – a then high flyer in HR at Unilever, began to realise his mind might need the same attention and care he gave his body. Or as Geoff likes to put it, “I learned dental hygiene as a child but no-one had taught me mental hygiene”.

Humans can be truly strange.

We create organisations and cultures that don’t factor in our own wellbeing. We expect our brains to be Olympian in their stamina yet refuse them the recovery time we all know our bodies need after being stretched to the max. On top of this, the professional identities we aspire to, when we get them, can make us miserable or worse. Take veterinarians. Who’d have thought this profession would have four times the national average suicide rate and yet… Here’s a group of animal-loving academic high-performers who join a respected profession where they work in almost total isolation, often on menial repetitive procedures, attending to the suffering of animals, all within easy reach of drugs capable of ending suffering of another, more human kind. Hmmm…

Thankfully the importance of normalising issues related to mental health is gaining traction. Including at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons(RCVS) where the Mind Matters initiative, designed by CEO Nick Stace and Geoff McDonald, is tackling mental health head on and inspiring the veterinarian profession globally to do the same. But there is much more to be done. Geoff and fellow campaigners at minds@work are still waiting for a high profile business leader to “throw a lifeboat” to others burdened with the stigma of mental health by publicly sharing their personal story.

2. Humans are more complex than a satellite

Rob Burnet the founder of Well Told Story (WTS) is very interested in what it means to be human. Not just because, rumour has it, he is himself human, but because WTS is on a mission to make young East Africans’ lives measurably better by influencing the choices they make about sex (contraception and relationships) and money (education and work) through its unique multi-media platform Shujaaz.

To do this WTS engages deeply with young Tanzanians and Kenyans to both understand why they do what they do now and what might create change. But to do this well means acknowledging human complexity, the difficulty of which Rob put into perspective by pointing out that you get a manual with a satellite but not with a baby! Like any organisation that wants to understand its target audience, WTS does a lot of research but it does this using tools and approaches that make manageable rather than eradicate complexity. For example their target audience segmentations are mapped against a scale that runs from Rejection to Acceptance – recognising that young people are not passively waiting to adopt new behaviours. Also young people help generate the segments which, when the behaviour in question is say condom use, certainly ensures the picture created is rich, real and revealing.

he trouble is though, it’s not just other people who are complex; it’s us too.

Aravind described what he’s experiencing aged 48 using the Adam 1, Adam 2paradigm. This originated in the philosophical essay The Lonely Man of Faith, penned by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in the 1960’s and has been chewed over by thinkers and leaders in the years since. The nub of it is, as Aravind put it, that inside us there is the player competing on the field (Adam 1) and the coach supporting and guiding from the side-lines (Adam 2). Perhaps in an ideal world one gives way to the other as we mature however in reality they coexist creating tension. This was something another speaker, Dr Val Curtis, an evolutionary anthropologist and behaviour change practitioner in public health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) related to: while she loves nurturing the talents of her PhD students she still fights the urge to compete with and outdo them.

3. Humans are not rational

In his book Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology, writer and Neuropsychologist Paul Brok describes a patient who can list the pros and cons of different appointment dates but cannot fix on one because the part of his brain that brings feeling to decision-making, to weight and judge the data, is damaged. This examination of a unique individual tells us something true for us all – we are not machines, our brains are not computers and we are not purely rational creatures. Emotions matter.

At Reconnect, Val also shared with us 15 different human motives, motives more likely to propel us to act than facts:

Each is highly nuanced, so much so Val has written a whole book on one of them: disgust (a driver that doesn’t just stop us eating things that might harm us but also affects the moral choices we make).

In our personal lives we understand all of this. Who chooses a partner or a restaurant or a house or to have kids or what car to buy (an Aston Martin perhaps) without consulting their gut? It’s just that at work we may feel the need to hide or obfuscate this aspect of our humanity. When Geoff told colleagues of his depression diagnosis what he got back was love. This helped support him as he edged his way carefully back to work and has led him to ponder since why love is a word seldom heard at work.

4. Humans like to conform to the norm

In Aravind’s opinion we each have invisible boundaries around us that can make choosing to do something different difficult – unless you’re “a malfunction” like Apple’s founder Steve Jobs of course! While it can feel like they come from within they can be seen as the result of societal pressure to conform to what’s normal or, as Rob Burnet puts it, to “what I think other people expect me to do”. At one level they keep us safely part of the herd. At another they restrict us. Which is why when they are challenged can be the moment something unique and interesting happens – something we heard quite a few examples of during Reconnect…

Aravind told us how Dr V. (the founder of the Aravind Hospitals) showed blatant disregard for what was normal in India in the 1970s. First he refused to retire at 58 as convention dictated, then he refused to accept that preventable blindness in India could not be addressed or even eradicated, and finally he refused to believe this could not be done profitably. Today his “unreasonableness” means Aravind hospitals perform around half a million surgeries a year, 50% free or subsidised by the wealthier patients.

Executive Headteacher, Drew Povey held forth on the power of positivity in culture change and shared examples of the positive approaches used at Harrop Fold School, many inspired by work of the Gottman Institute’s approach to relationship building. These included the 100 to Zero principle whereby even if a teacher gets nothing back from a pupil (the zero) the teacher must continue to be positive (the 100). This is hard but necessary because pupils come from some of the most deprived areas in Greater Manchester, areas where negativity is the norm and little is expected for their lives.

And of course Geoff refused – and still refuses – to keep quiet about his mental health diagnosis. Something he believes saved him from suicide, unlike his friend Nico who kept all his problems to himself until his untimely end.

5. Humans like to have a sense of purpose

Purpose has been a core topic of conversation on Connect since day one. Having purpose helps give humans meaning in their lives, something psychologist Timothy D. Wilson explores and expounds in his book, Redirect: Changing The Stories We Live By:

“Happy people’s narratives provide meaning… People who have such a narrative – who feel in control of their lives, have goals of their own choosing, and make progress toward those goals – are happier than people who do not. The important thing is to pursue goals that give us a sense of autonomy, effectiveness and mastery.”

While “finding your purpose” is not always easy, it could be argued that for those of us who do it can help us to both resist the power of external norms and navigate the complexity of our inner lives.

6. Humans are not islands (not even Ibiza)

Camerados is a global movement that wants to see the most disadvantaged and distressed segments of society not just survive but thrive. Its approach is rooted in the insight that purpose is not enough, friends matter too.

This insight comes from the experiences of its founder Maff Potts working with organisations like the Salvation Army on issues like homelessness. But if you spend even a short time with Maff you realise this is not just an insight, it is Maff. Maff will not accept social inequalities, he’s angry about them, and alongside this seems pre-programmed to reach out to others with curiosity, generosity and humility in pursuit of a fairer world. These qualities make you want to help, reminding us of Geoff’s belief that surely, “the best leaders in the world are the most courageous to be vulnerable”.

And yet the notion of the heroic isolated leader persists, somewhat unhelpfully.

For example, not all CEOs have the strength of character to admit they have a coach let alone the self-confidence to talk openly about it in front of a room of their peers. This is what as Helen Gordon, CEO of Grainger plc. did during Reconnect with her coach, Michael Worrall of Leaders and Transitions.

7. Humans hold stones in their hands

“Each one of us has a stone in our hand, each one of us can throw a stone and create ripples.” Dr Aravind Srinivasan, Director – Projects, Aravind Eye Care System

Ultimately, as Theresa May has discovered of late, as leaders and as humans we are judged not by our intent nor even our actions but rather by the impact of our actions.

During Reconnect we heard many examples of impactful action.

Ayush Chauhan, founder innovation of consultancy Quicksand, talked about how they apply design thinking and human centred design to tackle big complex systemic problems. Problems like the environmental disaster of plastic bag use and waste in Cambodia and financial inclusion among the poor in India.

Nick Stace told us of a much smaller act. One weekend he bought coffee machines to address the complaint at RCVS that, “the coffee here is rubbish”: a small act with a big impact as it helped staff see that change on more serious issues like workplace bullying might also be possible.

During Reconnect we also experienced impactful action.

At the end of the event, back all together in the main room, one Connect member told us something he’d kept to himself for years: that he too had suffered from a mental illness. It had prevented him from going to work but he had kept quiet about it on his return. His choice then and there to take the mic and speak moved many of us. His decision to go back to work and tell his story will no doubt create far-reaching ripples.

Written by Helen Trevaskis. Alongside helping Wavelength design Connect, Helen is a social innovator and behaviour change consultant.


Connect is our leadership programme that inspires, develops and connects leaders whose professional paths would not normally cross. With clients from large corporates, social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we bring together a diverse community of 90 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other.

Want to know more? Click here



Some of the people mentioned in this article are part of Wavelength’s SpeakersHub. To view their full biographies, find links to videos, and to book them to speak at your own event please click on the links below:

Geoff McDonald, former Global VP HR, Unilever; Global Advocate, Campaigner & Consultant on Mental Health in the Working World

Rob Burnet, Founder & MD, Well Told Story

Drew Povey, Executive Headteacher, Harrop Fold School


Further Reading List:

The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Don’t look, don’t touch, don’t eat: The science behind revulsion, Dr Val Curtis

Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology, Paul Brok

Redirect: Changing The Stories We Live By, Timothy D. Wilson

An Anatomy of Motivation: An Evolutionary-Ecological Approach, Robert Aunger & Valerie Curtis

Behaviour Centred Design: towards an applied science of behaviour change, Robert Aunger & Valerie Curtis

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