Real Leaders

Stop Being Such a Touchy-feely Leader

Years ago we talked a lot about being more touchy-feely in the workplace. Generation X inherited a work culture of distance, hierarchical authority and denial of any and all feelings. Business cases in MBA schools depicted classical grey, brainy and rather curt bosses as losers.

Real leaders, in contrast, were colorful, fashionable, sporty and creative, and very touchy-feely. It was like when color appeared in television for the first time! Wow!

As generation Y has now been replaced in our discussions by the newer and flashier millennials, touchy-feely leadership styles have gone all out. Our newest kids on the block get everything they want when they want it, otherwise they may change jobs before we have time to say goodbye. They wear what they want, they expect companies to motivate them at all times, they are seriously addicted to cell phones and they are the touchiest crowd you ever met. And that just shows you how very little they know or understand about leadership, let alone the essentials of real life social interaction.

I met two little girls with their nanny on the street yesterday. I was walking my dog Peca, which is Spanish for freckle. The two girls immediately looked at me with a question in their eyes: Could they pet my dog? I said “yes, but slowly. Always approach animals slowly.”

They probably approached Peca at the maximum slowness they were capable of. Maybe it was the first time anybody had asked them to slow down. Still, they were so fast that Peca retreated behind my legs. The little girls kept going. Peca retreated further, now circling around me as the little girls chased her with impatient enthusiasm to touch her. This is our new culture of touching. Today it seems that nothing happened if you didn’t get to touch it.  Taking a picture is another way to touch things. It’s like collecting experiences or grabbing parcels of life. Touch, touch, touch!

These little girls are no different from most adults today.We grab things. We touch stuff. We invade other people’s space.

We just ego our way into everything and everyone. We take all we want. We leave lots of trash behind. And never look back, busy as we are planning the next touchy-feely conquest on our list.Wildlife tourism is no longer about enjoying unexpected surprises in Nature. It’s about getting as close as possible to any animal we spot, taking a picture of it, and happily ignoring rules or even breaking the law in order to touch it.

Babies historically went through a touchy-feely phase during which they needed to touch and suck everything they found. Once they had licked and tasted the floor, all their toys, all their parents’ toys, and of course, all the dog’s toys too, they learned to make friends. They played with peers by hugging, grabbing, pinching, hitting and pushing each other every year after that. By the time they became teenagers, touching and being touched was an essential social skill to be applied with careful discernment. Today’s kids skip over a lot of childhood touching social games, having substituted them with video games and snapchats. Emerging young adults seem to be compulsive touchers of the world, while allergic to being touched. Whaaat?

Yes. Our new generations need to touch everything and everyone, but they are unable to respond naturally to being touched. It just feels weird, unplanned, invasive and way more intimate than the Gameboy machine ever was. Oh my! Are we in trouble!

So sex, of course, is a problem. It’s becoming a performance of pornography, carefully studied through a screen and insensitively applied to real persons with zero understanding of how it feels to them. No empathy and no ability whatsoever to read others’ signals of distress. Picture the little girls chasing my dog around my legs while the poor beast shivers, ducks its head and tries to scream “stop!” with only her doggy body language. Too many young kids are feeling as cornered, scared and helpless as my dog did that day.

But sex is the least of it. What can we expect from global generations of young adults with no inkling of basic animal territorial cues?

I explained to the two girls that if a dog retreats it means it is scared of you. If you advance anyway it may attack you out of fear. Invading another’s space is cheeky or tactless until it’s openly aggressive. Every animal on the planet knows and applies this basic rule of socialization. Except modern humans.

Wildlife worldwide is suffering this total lack of respect for others’ vital space. Whales are chased by motorized watercraft off the Canadian coast, and Migaloo, the famous albino humpback whale, had to be escorted by local coast guards this summer to fend off invasive tourists. Petting farms draw crowds of unsuspecting tourists to touch lion cubs whose later destinies are far from humane. As if there weren’t enough menaces on wild animals already, our touching obsession is becoming lethal to them as well. 

Real leaders touch many people’s lives every day. We impose our ideas and plans on others’ intentions, schedules and lives. We love change as long as it’s coming from us. But we need to understand how it feels to be touched physically in many different contexts in order to anticipate how our employees, clients, and other stakeholders are affected by our presence and push. We need to read other peoples’ reactions to know how fast we can go, how much strength we must apply, when we need to go soft.

Being touched is one of life’s most beautiful experiences when it is done with care, shared closeness and rigorous respect. It’s like being seen or being heard. It feels intimate, meaningful and loving. When it is done in a way that feels the effect it creates.

To touchy-feely leaders, it’s time you gave less and got a whole lot more touching. Animals and people everywhere will like you more. And Migaloo will be happy to swim in peace!


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