Shaista E. Khilji
4 min readApr 17, 2020

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Heart sign in the sun. Photo Credit: Pixaby

Using COVID-19 to Harness the Power of Heart & the Soul

In 2007, I published a paper that focused on implementation of management practices within organizations. I had insisted on using an unconventional dataset, to interview a wide range of employees, in non-leadership roles, with the purpose of studying their experiences. Through my conversation with them, I found major gaps between policy (what leaders eloquently spoke about) and practice (what actually was pushed down and implemented) within organizations. I described this as the disconnect between leader ‘rhetoric’ and individual ‘reality’. The idea stuck with me.

Many years later, I was studying global leaders using a life story approach. In the first phase of data collection, I interviewed leaders who shared their leadership philosophy with me. In the second phase, I reached out a sample of followers of the leaders I had just interviewed. As I starting speaking with the followers, (some of the) leader stories began to fall apart. The picture of authenticity (that I had heard from leaders) changed to portraits of egoistic and toxic leaders. Since then, I have learned that the mismatch between leader talk and their walk is far too common and deep-seated. This may explain the widespread distrust with corporate and political leaders globally.

I would attribute these inconsistencies to the prevailing paradigm, values as well as conventional leadership development approaches. Let me explain. Contemporary organizations are founded on amoral economistic principles, whereby profit maximization is the most important indicator of success. This has fostered a culture that values rationality in decision making over responsibility and wisdom, search for parsimony over understanding human complexity, and self-interest over collective well-being. Consequently, we have mastered leadership development approaches that over-rely on narrow sets of assumptions, and focus on developing leaders who possess ‘just the right’ traits, skills and knowledge to lead effectively. It is, therefore, no surprise to find leaders whose actions and values reflect amoral ideologies, lack of concern for the society, and positive attitude towards greed. We seem to be stuck within a vicious circle of self-serving inauthentic cultures, values and leaders!

As we go through this global pandemic, aforementioned inconsistencies, between rhetoric that organizations promote and the reality that individuals experience, are still on display.

Let me offer three examples here. Amazon has undertaken a number of initiatives to help the global community, such as establishing COVID-19 relief fund, and donating laptops and online resources to high schoolers. They also have created 100,000 new jobs in the fulfillment centers and delivery network to meet a surge in demand. However, at the same time, Amazon has also fired protest organizer, and put safety of hundreds of its warehouse workers at risk. Similarly, while Instacart has capitalized on the business opportunity of serving locked down families, its shoppers have expressed major concerns with unsafe working conditions. And while Google has added new features to improve remote learning options for the global community, its 119,000 contractors are demanding clearer policies.

I am sure leaders would profess a ‘business case’ and defend their decisions on the basis of rationality. But what about responsibility? Do these decisions consider social costs and collective well-being?

Let me use an analogy to describe how I am beginning to conceptualize these inconsistencies. Each year, organizations (and leaders) spend billions of dollars polishing up their image- creatively designing PR campaigns, promoting the most compelling narrative of job creation, and showcasing how they serve the community. We appear to have mastered the art of presenting a well-groomed (machine-like) body with a sharp (rational) mind. Isn’t a bodily image what we prize as a society! However, beneath this image lies the inconvenient reality for a majority of workers- largely inequitable workplaces, gender biases, soaring CEO compensation, falling real-wages, and blind commitment to meaningless initiatives. All bodies have a beating heart and a ‘soul’- that yearn to connect to the external existence, and live with meaning and purpose. Isn’t it time we connected with our hearts and souls to lead?

As we go through COVID-19, I want to take some time to reflect on becoming more aware of holistic ways in which humans can learn to lead- using all of our abilities- brain, heart and the soul. I would begin by paying attention to the social costs of our economic decisions, consider ways to promote human dignity and well-being, being inclusive and equitable, becoming more self-aware, setting aside ego, and focusing on the larger ‘common good’. I would also aim at being authentic and sincere in my efforts.

We have an extraordinary capacity to learn and grow. History tells us unprecedented times demand exceptional response. Moving forward by making trade-offs between social and economic costs will be ‘business as usual’, and likely to lead to higher stress-levels, greater inequities, and growing structural imbalances. Maybe it is time for us to harness the power of our heart and the soul to make humanistic and responsible decisions.

Shaista E. Khilji, April 14, 2020

This article has emerged out of the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate leadership. For more information, please refer to https://www.humanizinginitiative.com

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Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.