Ask yourself, "What do people need?" - SmartBrief

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Ask yourself, “What do people need?”

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I was born during the Summer of Love, in 1967, when the counter-culture phenomenon erupted into the public’s attention in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, when Thurgood Marshall was appointed as the first African-American to the US Supreme Court, and when the Six-Day War ended a frail peace and launched the Middle East on a decades-long conflict.

Nearly half a century since the Summer of Love, same-sex marriage is the law of the land, the notion of an African-American in the White House is almost unremarkable, and bloodshed rooted in centuries-old animosities in the Middle East has become a part of life around the world. But beyond the culture wars playing out in our laws and our politics, we’ve been living through an intensifying tension in the workplace that I think is equally newsworthy.

We’re living in a time of competing philosophies regarding how organizations function. It’s a quiet clash happening gradually but steadily beneath the surface. It’s a tectonic shift in how we identify with work and relate to the workplace. It’s a tension between achievement and purpose, between competencies and calling, between the systems we create and the humanity we embody. It’s a shift from a 20th-century industrial paradigm to a 21st- century network paradigm, enabled by technology and accelerated by the outlook of new generations rising into the workforce.

During a period of 15 years in senior management roles just at the outset of this new century, I personally observed what eventually emerged for me as a pattern. Experienced managers who had been successful earlier in their careers using a transactional style of leadership found themselves struggling.

It appeared increasingly the case that developing a well-considered, logical cascade of goals and objectives and that promulgating thorough operating procedures was not nearly enough to create consistent results. And it seemed the norm that so many of the latest technology solutions fell short of unleashing the kind of productivity and transformation they promised.

I also witnessed a persistent pattern of leaders straining to achieve big goals by repeatedly restructuring, cycling through a series of systems solutions and developing ever more tightly defined competencies by which to spur and measure staff performance. The pattern is one of reaching for increasingly systemic answers without asking the fundamental question: “What do people need?”

The bigger pattern I perceive today is a shift away from a workplace paradigm defined by competency, control and convention towards a new workplace paradigm defined by calling, caring and creating. The seeds had actually been sown during the whole of my own lifetime — even starting before — by the likes of Joseph Campbell, James McGregor Burns, Robert Greenleaf, John Renesch, Ken Wilber, Margaret Wheatley, Otto Scharmer, Frederic Laloux, just to name a few.

Today in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, we now see the concepts of human-centered management all around us. And in the bright halls of the most reputable consulting firms and global corporations these new human-centered management practices are gaining a legitimacy that has begun to generate mainstream acceptance of a new paradigm for organizational life.

Alas, I witness day by day that on the surface, most of us still default to our 20th-century command-and-control methods. Just underneath the surface, we’re conscientious that it’s a time to change paradigms, and more of us are making the effort to be that leader who regularly, and sincerely, asks the question “What do people need?” We’re increasingly willing to allow ourselves to know that people need “calling, caring and creating” to thrive in their work.

Progress is slow but steady. It excites me to sense that the tipping point may be near when this tension — this tectonic shift in how we understand “the organization” — has abated. I can scarcely imagine what organizations will look and feel like in the not-so-distant summer of 2067. But it’s certainly exciting to try to imagine!

Daniel Doucette is an organizational dynamics advisor, leadership coach, and founder of BraveShift, offering change management and leadership development to the social sector. His 25-year career, including 12 years as a CFO and COO for international NGOs, provides expertise in strategy, operations management, leadership development, staff engagement, organizational design, culture, internal communications, and process optimization. His broad experiences include work with a wide variety of organizations: local, national and global in scope; in high-growth mode, turn-around mode, or maintaining. Doucette thrives when using his blended left-side skills and right-side creativity enabling people to connect their sense of purpose with behaviors and actions designed to improve organizational effectiveness. See more at and @BraveShift on Twitter.

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