Truly Human Leadership

Nov 16, 2020 | DTJ Online, Fall Meeting 2020 Videos, Leadership

By Sharon Lo Managing Editor, Defense Transportation Journal and The Source


“The issues I believe we face that we’re trying to address here are prevalent in all parts of our society, and it’s called the privilege of leadership,” said Mr. Bob Chapman. Chapman is the Chairman and CEO of Barry Wehmiller, a global supplier of manufacturing technology and services, and author of the book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family.

Chapman’s remarks came during his keynote address at the 2020 NDTA-USTRANSCOM Fall Meeting. The event, which took place virtually October 5-8, brought together more than 1,500 attendees from government, military, and industry to learn and collaborate. The theme for the meeting was Innovative and Disruptive…2020 Vision for the Future.

“Before the pandemic, before the social unrest, before the political debate, we had a country that was actually experiencing a great deal of anxiety and depression,” said Chapman. “Eighty-eight percent of all people in this country felt they worked for an organization that did not care about them. We had a 20 percent increase in heart attacks on Monday mornings when people had to go back to work. When people complain about the cost of healthcare, I say our leaders are the problem because 74 percent of all illnesses are chronic. The biggest cause of chronic illness is stress, and the biggest cause of stress is work.”

He quoted a New York Times article by Thomas Friedman that said ‘we don’t have a poverty of money in this country we have a poverty of dignity.’ This aptly describes peoples’ need to know who they are and what they do matters, giving them dignity. But the problem, according to Chapman, lies in the fact that leaders are not giving dignity to the people in their care. Leaders are giving people jobs and money and assuming that is all they need. However, people desperately need dignity.

Friedman wrote a subsequent article in which he said that if you show people respect and affirm their dignity, it is incredible what you can say to or ask of them. Sometimes all people need is to be listened to—and deep listening, not just waiting for them to stop talking. Listening is the ultimate sign of respect.

Reflecting on his formal education, Chapman says he was taught management, not leadership. He has learned to define management as the manipulation of others for your own success and leadership as the stewardship of the lives entrusted to you. “I was never told this, but I saw people as objects for my success, and my success meant money, power, and position,” explained Chapman. “That’s the system I was taught; that is what I experienced in the first half of my career.”

He added that he was never taught how to inspire people. Instead, he was taught how to tell people what to do because of the perception that he was somehow smarter or more capable due to his better education or higher stature within the company. This issue of people being used for economic gain and not being stewarded for human gain is prevalent worldwide and in all facets of society.

His journey to truly human leadership focuses on people, purpose, and performance. “The first responsibility of a leader is the people in your span of care, around a purpose that inspires them, and you have to create value. You cannot be good to your family, you cannot be good to the people in your care, unless you’re creating value,” he said, adding that value gives legitimacy to move forward.

The journey from management to leadership, and from focusing on me to focusing on we, is the society we need. It is a society where people genuinely care for each other. It’s about how we treat others and how people, in turn, treat us.

Chapman shared a few key experiences that shaped his thoughts on leadership. In one instance, he watched employees have fun chatting before work, only to see them lose that joy as starting time approached. This caused him to wonder why business can’t be fun—why work can’t be a place where people express their gifts most fully and can be creative while having fun.

After feeling inspired by a one-hour church service, he wondered why leaders couldn’t be more inspiring to people who are in their care for 40-hours a week. He surmised that business leaders could be the most powerful opportunity for good in the world if they simply cared about the people they had the privilege of leading.

Watching a friend walk their daughter down the aisle on her wedding day, Chapman thought about how parents bring children into the world and give them everything in order to allow them to become who they are intended to be in life. His mind shifted to his 12,000 employees around the world, who are someone’s precious child. He realized people are not their functions—they are not accountants, engineers, salespeople, or simply their salary amount—they are someone’s precious child under his care.

Chapman recognized that the way his employees were treated at work affected their health. It had a profound effect on who they end up becoming in life and how they go home and treat their families. “The way we lead those people in your care, the way we treat them, the way we send them home each day, has a profound impact on the way they treat their families and their own self-confidence,” said Chapman.

Treating the people in your care this way does not mean the actual work suffers. When discussing a group’s use of brutal honesty, Chapman explained he utilizes continuous improvement instead. People and organizations can always be better and hard truth delivered with deep care is how to make that happen. This entails recognizing what they did well, as well as the areas for improvement—individually and as a team. It also means considering what language can be used to communicate these things, that will allow you to treat the men and women in your care, so they feel valued and inspired to be better every day.

In the journey from management to leadership, Chapman needed to define success. Within our society, success is often measured by money, power, and position. Chapman began to look at success by the way we touch the lives of people.

Addressing the audience, he said everyone in a position of responsibility or leadership has the chance to look at the people in their care as somebody’s precious child and ensure those people know who they are and what they do matters. This will help create a society where people feel cared for and care for each other, so collectively, we can reduce the anxiety and depression causing many of the issues we face in this country.

“What we’ve learned about leadership—leadership in every part of society is the stewardship of the lives entrusted to you, and everybody in your span of care wants to know that who they are and what they do matters,” said Chapman.

He added that “listening is a critical leadership skill and the most powerful act of caring and creating dignity. I thought when you cared for somebody you went over and talked to them, it turns out the greatest act of leadership is not talking to somebody, it is listening to somebody with the skills that validate their worth—and that is the key.”

While it is common to have learned to use people for organizational goals, we need to see people as the center of our focus—people, purpose, and performance. Recognition and celebration are essential to leadership. Therefore, after a mission, we must recognize and celebrate those who contributed to the its success and do so in thoughtful and appropriate ways.

“Parenting and leadership are identical. Parenting is the stewardship of these precious lives that come into our families through birth, second marriage, adoption. What is leadership? The stewardship of these precious lives, these people who walk onto our bases, into our offices, into our buildings around the world, who simply want to know that who they are and what they do matters,” said Chapman. “So just be the leader you would want to follow. Be the leader you would want your son or daughter to have that would validate their worth and allow them to be who they’re intended to be.”

Chapman’s message transcends all parts of society. It is about how we live and work together, where we value each other, and sending people home feeling valued so that they treat their families, their kids, and behave in their communities in the same way they’ve been treated. Many of the issues we face in this country result from not knowing how to listen to each other and people not feeling cared for—instead feeling used.

Chapman summarized his journey, as he did in his book:

  • Everybody wants to do better. TRUST THEM.
  • Leaders are everywhere. FIND THEM.
  • People achieve good things, big and small, every day. CELEBRATE THEM.
  • Some people wish things were different. LISTEN TO THEM.
  • Everybody matters. SHOW THEM.

“That is the world I imagine,” said Chapman. “That is the world you want to be a part of, that is the world you want your children to be a part of, and that is the world you can create through the skills of listening, recognition, celebration, and caring.”


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