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InfoQ Homepage Articles People, Not Screens: Why Soul-Based Leadership Will Change the Nature of Remote and Hybrid Work

People, Not Screens: Why Soul-Based Leadership Will Change the Nature of Remote and Hybrid Work

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Key Takeaways

  • In a virtual work world, our “aliveness” or “life-force” becomes muted or hidden, creating personal dissatisfaction and breeding miscommunication between co-workers 
  • Leaders who focus on bringing out human(e)ness increase professional and personal growth, and turn what can be a vicious cycle of misunderstanding into a virtuous cycle of better understanding and shared meaning
  • Leadership should stay conscious of improving their brain’s executive function - the stop, reflect, and decision choice process - to fortify critical thinking
  • Soul-based leaders use “mindful listening”: paying close attention to other people’s “life signals” like voice, facial expressions, and expressiveness as much as they focus on content 
  • Whether you’re leading a team, a division, an entire organization, or you’re a developer on a team, we all “lead our own life,” so everyone can benefit by applying soul-based leadership practices 

There isn’t a day that goes by when there isn’t an article about virtual, remote, or hybrid work. It is the main leadership challenge of our time. But we are focusing on the wrong target.  

The issue at hand is how to lead in a way that meets our moment in history and take control of the situation in a way that helps a majority of professionals, while keeping companies intact regardless of location. And for that we need completely new metaphors and ways of knowing as we navigate this liminal space in which the old work rules don’t quite apply, but the new work rules - which we will discuss shortly - have yet to take form.

Leadership and org structures have been shifting for a long time. As far back as 1912, Frederick Winslow Taylor, the management guru behind "scientific management," which is defined as leadership hierarchies that hold strict control over workers through bureaucracies, told Congress that: 

... the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is … physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.

His disdain for workers was heavily criticized at the time; however, despite objections to his personal beliefs, his conception of organizational form defined much of 20th century corporate design. More recent turns toward flatter, self-organizing groups have since softened some of the hard edges of Taylorism, yet there remain serious problems with empathy gaps between leaders and followers.

Oddly enough in the 1930s, after Taylor staked his claims, Elton Mayo, a Taylorism believer who first set out to strengthen Taylor’s theories through what have become known as the Hawthorne Studies, discovered instead that people performed best, no matter their work condition or structural stance on an org chart, when leaders demonstrated they cared for workers and paid meaningful attention to helping them succeed. In fact, his discovery ended up beginning a leadership approach aptly named "The Human Relations Movement.'' 

Yet despite the fact that human resources departments have become commonplace, originally intending to close some of the social and emotional chasms between leaders and workers, what’s been dubbed the Great Resignation continues. Workers are leaving in droves to find a more "liveable life."

If our goal is to keep civil society coherent through cooperation and collaboration among people who are generally fed up with the way they’ve been led, especially upon reflection - given the time they have had to think about their lives during the beginning of the Covid-19 era - then we need to find a new way of understanding this leadership crisis as well. As Einstein once said, "No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it".

So where do we start?  

I’ve been thinking about this question for many years, and one day I found a door to the answer as I boarded a four-person helicopter:

Pre-pandemic days I was on holiday in Antigua. Nearby, the tiny volcanic island of Montserrat still seethes and spews steam after a major explosion on July 18, 1995. Much of the island is uninhabitable and off-limits to visitors. However, I found out there were helicopter tours available to see the spectacle up close. So I decided to take a ride.

I sat next to the pilot. As we lifted off, I heard him talking to the air traffic controller and he said, "Four souls on board. Four souls on board. Over." I couldn’t help but wonder why he used the word "souls" to describe the people on board. He told me that in aviation, all types of aircraft carry people who are alive and some who are not alive and have passed away. All are listed by name on the manifest. But on takeoff, the air traffic controllers need to know how many are alive. To distinguish them, they are counted as "souls."

At that moment, soul-based leadership was conceived.

In a world where we spend the majority of time communicating through screens, much of our "aliveness," the whole and vibrant manifestation of our personhood, often seems unreachable as we remain frozen behind tech platforms. For example, in a popular online meeting application, people who don’t show up on video have their aliveness depicted as colored circles with initials inside. When we hear them talk, a dark line pulses around the artificial icon, growing darker as they speak and fading as they pause. In other applications where we choose to use video, we can appear inanimate or lifeless. And in others still, we’re depicted as cartoon characters having no semblance of a human form at all.

Of course we don’t need leaders to know that our colleagues are alive. However, it’s helpful to remember human nature is a funny thing and ever since our earliest days as a species, movement and animation have been key signals to us that others are alive. So sitting like statues peering through a glass window pane doesn’t naturally set off that ancient, intuitive lived knowledge of others' aliveness. In fact, it unintentionally may transmit the message that the leader really doesn’t "see" or "hear" us at all. 

The people-based signals Mayo found to be the most important for motivation can vanish in today’s mixed modes of virtual, hybrid and even in-person work. For example, we don’t shift around often when sitting still looking into a monitor. We tend to use less facial expressions or hand gesturing. It’s part of the underbelly of technology’s evolution. While it has its many, many upsides, our technology when unconsciously activated in this way, becomes a leadership constraint, blocking the view into employees’ "lives continued". But that doesn’t mean it has to remain this way.

The Importance of Theory of Mind

Another related trade-off is that much of our awareness and skills associated with taking others into account has accidentally atrophied. For example, we’ve all had that moment in a virtual meeting when we feel like others don’t even see us or feel as though we’re actually "there".

I’ve heard this described in hundreds of different ways over the past year and a half, and well before then as well. The awareness of the other and the associated behavioral adjustments we normally make in non-mediated interactions to account for others who think differently than we do and feel differently than we do, is known in neuroscience as Theory of Mind, or ToM for short. And ToM sets the table and is a prerequisite for the development of empathy.

But in the race to find ways to communicate across vast distances or even side-by-side via mediating devices, ToM can be unconsciously set aside because the need to exercise it isn’t necessarily apparent from a brain-based point of view. 

When there’s seemingly no living being to attend to, we slide into engaging with the technology rather than our colleagues. It becomes the path of least resistance, taking little to no extra brain power. So unless we’re focused on attending to our brain’s natural bias, we just don’t bother, and a kind of distortion begins to grow: the device takes over and metaphorically does the caring for us.  

By enacting a soul-based leadership approach, one that elevates human relations to the top of the priority stack and in a way that can be experienced through the electronic ether, the leader demonstrates that taking others into account in a positive way leads to big boosts. 

And that creates a virtuous, rather than vicious, cycle, reawakening some of our ToM muscles needed to reflect upon others’ point of view and provide a motivational frame for the brain to re-engage ToM reflex. This can result in the deliberate development of shared context that is what leads to meaningful exchange.

So What Exactly is Soul-Based Leadership?

Soul-based leadership is a systematic approach that technology leaders can deploy to hit the right targets to improve worker experience and professional development. It can jump-start a redirected focus on what matters most: the people and their desire to be seen and heard in respectful and appreciative ways.

Soul-based leadership is built on two integrated pillars: neuroscience, and other ways of knowing inspired by eastern philosophies in which aliveness is at the heart of awareness, stillness and calm. 

Pillar 1: Neuroscience

We’ve developed cognitive and emotional habits since the beginning of Covid-19 that have helped us adapt quickly to an acute, dangerous health threat. For example, one habitual manifestation was to pile one meeting on top of another. This habit served both the need to get a lot done as well as a welcome distraction from the trauma-based stress of the initial shock and abrupt separation from one another. It also served as a reliable routine, providing some stability in the sudden onset of the consuming crisis.

However, in the situation we face now and likely moving forward for at least a little while more, this habit is actually maladaptive as we attempt to put our lives back together in a way that nurtures more ease and dials down stress reactions. And to break a habit born under a crisis condition, once it’s no longer needed, takes a lot more time, energy and thoughtfulness. The grooves carved in our brain by acute fear and survival response run deep through our grey matter. Soul-based leaders can help to teach others how to let go of these habits by using repeated practices to forge new brain paths to reroute our thinking and level off our emotional regulators. As soul-based leaders move in this direction, workers take notice and begin to mimic those behaviors, alleviating everyone’s stress levels - no matter where they work.

For example, early on in the pandemic I was hired to help a technology executive on the other side of the country whose employees were, as he put it, "literally starting to cry" because they couldn’t physically or emotionally stand the non-stop stacked video calls. He didn’t know what to do because it seemed the only option. But it wasn’t. 

He and his employees had just become habituated to thinking that was their only choice. As we worked together, he began to see how he could use a mix of communication modes and better timing of tasks and deliverables to give the body and mind some rest, while still operating at a high level of efficiency: by understanding the person as a "soul". After he’d put some of these practices into action, he called to say that his people were much calmer and the work quality had increased.

Since then, it’s become clear that using audio only or mixing up video with audio sometimes is important. Making time for "human(e) needs" like bathroom breaks, food, and taking care of small household chores for example are paradoxically like manna from heaven when compared to the robotic reruns of our recent experiences. 

It’s important to note that this leadership competency doesn’t have to be a mysterious process. We can intentionally do this by focusing on strengthening our brain’s executive function to escape old habits that no longer serve us.

Executive function is like the traffic cop standing at an intersection of our mind, carefully directing thoughts this way or that, saying "stop" to some, "yield" to others and "go" to still others. Technology leaders in fact are natural traffic coordinators, rerouting priorities, people and processes to meet critical path milestones and engineering relationships.  

Soul-Based Leader Tip 1: Hone Executive Function

One of the most highly researched and evidence-based ways to invigorate executive function is through the ancient practice of mindfulness. Although it’s taken on a relatively "pop" aura relative to 2500 years ago, developing mindfulness is actually hard work! But the payoff is big in terms of making more informed decisions and leading with care. 

I often recommend one technique I learned from one of my teachers that I’ve personally modified a bit and called the Standing Ground Practice. You can be anywhere: sitting or standing at your desk or waiting on a corner to meet a friend. It’s ideal if you can go outside and stand facing a tree or something alive that’s naturally rooted in the earth, but it’s not necessary for the practice to be effective in this context. 

After finding your spot, bring your attention to the contact point between your feet and the ground or floor beneath you. Focus on that point and consider what it feels like. Thoughts about all kinds of things will most certainly interrupt. That’s natural, so let them be – try not to fight them or get lost in a story. Let them float by like clouds in a big open sky, an image gifted to me by another one of my mindfulness teachers.

Bring yourself back to the connection of your feet on the ground and refocus on what that connection feels like. Is there a way to slightly soften your stance? If not, that’s fine too. When possible, use a gentle and curious mind as opposed to a judgmental or harsh inner voice directing you to get back to work. There’s time for it all.

This and other similar kinds of practices can also be done in a group. Soul-based leaders may choose to encourage a moment or two to do so as a way to welcome participants to a meeting or bring group conversations to a close. Over time, repeating this relatively simple practice as just one example, results in noticeable, beneficial behavior change and leader effectiveness. 

Pillar 2: Contemplation and Reflection

Pillar 2 supports Pillar 1, but can also stand on its own. Some of our best ideas for problem solving or innovation come to us as sudden insights after practicing for a while.

Take the agile practice of self reflection and helping team members find ways to self-reflect (see InfoQ article Reflective Practice and Application). Technology leaders who create and implement agile software development are in many ways burgeoning soul-based leaders. With an emphasis on people and teams as the first priority, the agile reflective process is an example of an "applied" soul-based leadership practice.

Here too, the neuroscience research shows reflection and unconstrained contemplation is an excellent way to secure more "aha" moments. When we’re daydreaming for example, freely allowing a wandering mind to be, as well as when we’re sleeping, our brain begins one of its most important functions: integrating all the things we’ve learned that day with all the other things we know from our entire lifetime until that moment. During this crucial linkage and integration process, the brain discovers connections that can’t be seen when we’re busy and solely "tasking". In fact, scientifically speaking, our brain depends on this undefined space and time to realize our full potential as a holistic being. 

Soul-Based Leadership Tip 2: Create space in your day for daydreaming (alone or with your team)

Go to a place or do some kind of exercise like biking or walking (I’ve even done it while scuba diving!) that creates a space where you can let your mind wander.

For most of us, probably the most realistic thing to do would be to take a walk outside if possible, for a few minutes a couple of times a day. We can begin building this habit by deliberately placing it on our calendar and giving ourselves permission to make it just as important as any other commitment.

Block enough time for a long enough walk that enables you to shake off the "tasking" mind and create a few minutes for a "wandering" mind. Use what’s around you to mix in some mindfulness like focusing on nature scenery, or looking closely at the pattern in the concrete pavement in urban environments and taking in the details.  

Doing this as a group of agile developers is actually already part of the agile process. Combined with some mindfulness, motivation may even increase. To enhance the contemplative aspect, try to build in some silence. This way you get the best of both worlds: allowing space for wondering without interruption, but having the support of colleagues.

You’re not likely to get an "aha" moment every time, but the accumulation of training your mind in this way - wandering on its own, naturally creating more space - accrues to reveal significant benefits down the road. As agile leaders and developers, you’re likely already experiencing some of these benefits.  

Other clients have reported that in just a few days of this kind of repeated practice, they wake up in the middle of the night in bed and realize the answer to a problem they’ve been wrestling with for months. I think we’ve all had that happen from time to time - so we know through our own experience that it’s possible.

By tapping into our bottomless well of authentic, well-intentioned aliveness and combining it with an expanded perspective that actively considers other people’s worldviews, we begin to nurture better results faster while also fostering joy, diversity and inclusion by way of shared empathy. Soul-based leadership lights up a path out of the cycles of what seem like continuous noise created by the frantic and narrow nature of considering remote or hybrid work in isolation.  

Mayo was on this path when he uncovered human relations as a leader’s highest priority. One of the many differences today is that knowledge-based versus assemblage work is hard to see. When combined with our almost singular obsession over the circumstantial veneer covering ever-changing place-based configurations in software development and other types of work, our "soul" gets buried beneath an infinite set of conflationary concerns distracting us away from what matters most.

By building on the unchanging authoritative stance of human relations and the new view of soul-based leadership as our starting points, we can create a truly extraordinary way forward that’s aligned to our moment in history.

About the Author

Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski is the CEO of Virtual Distance International (VDI), an executive advisory and consulting company specializing in Workplace Transformation, powered by her award-winning predictive Virtual Distance Analytics. During the Covid-19 / pandemic era, her work has become especially prescient as remote and hybrid work skyrocket in a "long-tail" crisis management era. She’s the author of three best-selling books including The Power of Virtual Distance: A Guide to Productivity and Happiness in the Age of Remote Work ( (Wiley, 2020), Leading the Virtual Workforce (Wiley, 2010) and Uniting the Virtual Workforce (Wiley, 2008). 

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