A little over a month ago, I had the opportunity to attend a talk at Cornell University by Brandon Stanton, the author of Humans of New York (HONY). A very eloquent speaker, Mr. Stanton kept his audience engaged with his stories of how he has interviewed thousands of people not only in New York City but across the world. What I took away was the importance of the human element when leading via technology. Technology is helping us spread our word far and wide but a human heart is what gives it the voice that others can connect with.
Behind the social media powering HONY is a human who has overcome the fear of rejection on his way to amassing a worldwide following but still feeling vulnerable like the rest of us. When asked about his biggest fear, he replied that he sees himself as someone who is not a good person but is now entrusted with a job that is noble. He is afraid that the things that he did during his younger years might be exposed on the Internet and sully his image. I felt that his fear, paradoxically, was also his strength; it showed the vulnerability he perceived. A leader who feels powerful and invincible cannot connect with others. Humility and a feeling of vulnerability are needed to empathize with others and connect with them.
The importance of the human element in connecting with others was also highlighted in Mr. Stanton’s experience traveling abroad during the last two summers. Mr. Stanton mentioned the engagement of his social media followers fell during his Summer 2014 travels but stayed normal during his most recent travels. He attributed this shift to the choices of his interpreters. His 2014 linguists were skillful at translating accurately but they failed to connect on a human level with those he interviewed. This year, he changed his strategy to choose interpreters who were ‘people’ oriented and found that they made all the difference in bringing out impactful stories.
Another story Mr. Stanton shared highlighted the importance of creating a culture of humanness. Some have criticized Mr. Stanton’s work for not following journalistic standards. He half-jokingly remarked that, indeed, he does not fact check if someone is narrating from personal experience. He went on to illustrate that what he hears from someone is indeed a story in their head and that it is significant even if it is distorted.
The example he gave was of someone who claimed to be a Navy Seal and said that his father served in the military. After this person’s story was posted on HONY, former acquaintances of his commented on the post and painted him as a chronic liar who had made up all that he claimed. Mr. Stanton took down the post but a month after that he received an email from the individual’s mother asking him if she could get a copy of the picture he had posted of her son. Her son, she wrote in the email, had committed suicide. Social media technology, because of the way it reaches and touches different people far and wide, has the tendency to bring out the truth. As this example shows, this truth can sometimes be uncontainable and hurt badly.
There is no way a leader can withhold the truth from coming to fruition. Nor should one try to do that. A leader also cannot be in a position to judge what is a lie and what is the truth. Indeed, Mr. Stanton noted that there is a fine line between what is a story of someone’s life and a falsehood. My suggestion to leaders is to foster a culture of compassion and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a virtue that helps us live in the present and look forward to an engaging future instead of clinging onto a painful past. While the above example alone solidifies the significance of forgiveness to a life, emerging research (see 1, 2) is suggesting that creating a culture of forgiveness may bring physical, mental, and organizational benefits.
I am glad I got to attend Mr. Stanton’s presentation. It offered a different perspective than what I get to see when I read HONY. It reinforced the continued importance of the human element in a world where our interactions are increasingly mediated by technology.
Continue to stay human, Mr. Stanton. You’ll do fine.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Arina Zanin for providing valuable feedback on an earlier draft of this post.