If you want to be a better manager, there are lessons to be gained from the unlikely source of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s greatest writer. While I was in Lisbon I went to the house where Pessoa lived, and walked in the park he loitered in during those years where he tried to find the meaning of life. Dipping into his work at random in a busy bookshop, Pessoa rolls up on you like a literary drive-by shooting, with eruptive sentences about awaking in the very early morning: “Everything was asleep as if the universe was a mistake.”
Pessoa is the voice of the vaccine that hurts, without promising to protect you. But his words are a great placebo, as a minimum, and at the top end, they’re a bright red flare of our individual power to inspire others. And in many workplaces right now, existential cure lines need to be dug, to avoid people drifting away amid the waterlogged messages of well-worn management practice. “I bear the wounds of all the battles I avoided,” Pessoa writes, giving us confidence to act and do, where he did not.
The pumping revelations of Pessoa’s mind, peppered densely throughout his seminal work, The Book of Disquiet, almost diagnose the people challenges managers must work through every day. But by taking his lessons further, you can use him to move yourself up to that level of electricity where you evolve from manager to inspiring weekly leader. Here’s how you can get there.
Energy is the Source of Your Bond
“Everything interests me, but nothing holds me,” Pessoa writes in big letters. “I wander as I walk straight ahead. When it’s time, I show up at the office like everyone else.” Sound familiar? Through Pessoa’s words we can look 360 degrees through the run of our lives. People want an energy source in their work environment. The work itself may be interesting, but without energy that crucial emotional commitment between employer and employee will inevitably fade, or worse still never be created in the first place. Reading and absorbing Pessoa grounds you in reality with perspectives that can help you relate to others. He helps you as a manager toward thinking from behind the eyes of each of your team members in real time.
“Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no landscape but what we are. […] What hand will I reach out, and to what universe? The universe isn’t mine, it’s me” – Pessoa
Portugal’s greatest writer is like the drifting employee who lacked the ear of a good manager. He sought solace in a solitary life, and poured himself and his struggle into his writing. In his work, which he left in a chest and was only discovered after his death, he leaves readers with a sense that there’s something out there in life that he failed to anchor himself to: “My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.”
It could quite clearly be said that Pessoa destroyed himself by doggedly searching for the meaning of life. But as managers we can learn from him without having to do the same. Listen to what seeps out of his words: “I filled my hands with sand, called it gold, and opened them up to let it slide through. Words were my only truth. When the right words were said, all was done; the rest was the sand that had always been.”
There are often things left off a job description that a good manager does because of what’s inside them. And that’s what I describe as positive existential energy. If you gain that as a manager, you can transfer it to your people, one by one. If you’re committed to doing that, you’ll have a big impact. People are each living a life. And it’s easy to forget when office politics and rushed routines each day blur our sense of personal direction. Talking to your people with curiosity about who they are and how they see the world is one fine way of learning to become a true manager.
There’s a school of thought that managers follow processes and that the inspiration is left to the higher up leaders (i.e. the CEO, Directors). I don’t agree. For one, in many bigger organisations, personal contact with the CEO (one-on-one) is almost unheard of, especially on a sit-down, regular basis. So to the individual who watches the occasional webinar announcement given by the CEO – or who sits at the side of the stage watching their presentation – that CEO is a leader, but one who’s seasonal, like the auntie or uncle you see at Christmas, and at one or two other regular intervals in the year. Occasions like this may be inspirational, but they deliver inspiration to employees in widely spaced out peaks and troughs. My view is that people feel better about their work when they receive attentive inspiration each week. That’s where good managers come in.
“My path is through infinity all the way to the end!” – Pessoa
If you’re a manager, I’d suggest not pegging yourself too tightly to your title. Think of yourself from the perspective of one of the direct reports in your team. How would they perceive the value that you, personally, add to their lives? Are you a useful crash barrier to stop them careering off the road? Sure. And that’s great. But could you do more? I think so. Aim to become someone who can speak to others in a way that makes the molecules in their brain bubble with possibility, even after they’ve left the conversation.
Nail the Meaningful Appraisal Meeting
You’re busy, but be careful with that. The truth is that you “have a job to do.” Sure. But by speaking to people in the style of “I have a job to do” (and it comes across in your tone), you isolate them; you simply push them away. There’s an art of being able to put that “job to do” to the back of your mind when you speak to people, so that the supervision, the appraisal, doesn’t feel prosaic, transactional, like an unloved process.
Think of someone like Pessoa, so focussed on life, on what’s inside it and what isn’t, on what’s visible and what’s hidden, which we can sense from reading his work. But realise this: we’re all focussed on life, just in different tracks. So find the track in each person you speak with each day, listen out for it, spot it in the corner of their eye. That’s a fine way to start building team relationships that aren’t blatantly process driven; that don’t sag like cardboard in the rain. “Life is whatever we conceive it to be,” Pessoa scribbled down in his notebook. This is why listening is so important. Understand how each individual in your team sees life, otherwise you won’t understand them and how to bring out their best qualities. Pay attention to what lights them up.
Imagine you’re doing a supervision meeting, an appraisal, with Fernando Pessoa this afternoon. What would you ask him? What would you listen for? What would connect the two of you? How would you end the discussion? What movement would your arms make as you realised the bond that was forming, because you’re both fine creatures carving out their own attempt at today. What would you ask someone to let them know you care about them? What would you like to say to the person who’s trying to fund their journey through life, just like you? Because one way of funding it is financially, but the psychologically sustainable part – the memorable part – is the philosophical feeling of riding that journey with other people. This manifests in physical effects: feelings of nausea mixed with fear and disgust when you get it wrong, and feelings of elation, confidence, and growth when you get it right. Harnessing that positive spectrum of existential energy means people respect you because you understand its presence. Your job titles are flying up in the air of the room. But the existential energy is what’s diffusing in the space between your eyes and theirs. What you say and your style of saying it – your emotional intention, your commitment to life – all come through at every moment. So you have a decision to make: what kind of existential energy you will fill the room with. One imbued with a sense of bounce, or one stained with a sense of inertia? I vote that you choose the former, and do that every day until you get great at life yourself as a side effect.
“Art consists in making others feel what we feel” – Pessoa
Be the magnet that every employee who has a manager needs: be that weekly inspiring leader who they don’t have to wait until Christmas to see. It’s the biggest impact you can make. Think of yourself in that room with Pessoa, week in, week out. Both of you can always learn. Do your job, yes, but remember the art of letting yourself grow out of your job title at the same time. Managers can change the portion of the world they see every single week, many times over, with every person they meet with. Everyone has their own life track, but we’re all on the same journey towards what that means for us. That’s an endless source of fascination for you as a manager. So develop your own taste for the spectrum of existential energy. If you harness that, your team will grow as will you, and your staff turnover rate will shrink as you all get better at listening to life diffusing in the supervision room. Don’t avoid these moments, or waste them. A process isn’t a manager: you are. Don’t let it rule out your energy. Next time you’re mentally preparing for an exchange with someone, think: What would I say to Pessoa to make his life vibrate? That’s the kind of challenge a potentially great manager sets themselves: to find that out for everyone they work with.
Become an Energy Donor
As a manager your energy is everything, and if you don’t learn to generate, understand and harness yours, you’ll lose it from those around you. If that happens you’ll cling to your processes and lose your value as a source of human growth. In their eyes, if you cling to something outside of yourself to form your “at work” management personality, you lose all relevance to your people as someone unique to learn from. Solve life questions together, as part of you doing your job, that way you’ll become a great manager and, to the delight of your team, the weekly leader they’ve gone through their last two jobs subconsciously searching for. There’s an art to balancing your job with being you at exactly the same time. But you can find balance by doing both equally strongly, and doing both 100% makes you a 200% manager when you nail it. Yet don’t be afraid of continuing if you feel you’re doing this imperfectly. Mistakes are ok, because you’re learning to get better.
“We worship perfection because we can’t have it; if we had it, we would reject it. Perfection is inhuman, because humanity is imperfect” – Pessoa
The people you’re there as a manager for all have a life to find their way in, just like you. Bring that theme together and you’ve made a good start at rewiring your workplace culture so that it won’t fuse out the lights. Make sure your process allows time for a bright connection. It’s important that each meeting with each person doesn’t smell like it’s just popped out of the process toaster. Give a bespoke experience to each person you speak with. It’s their life, it’s their time. It’s your life, it’s your time. It isn’t a war as to whose time is most important. The existential fusion of the two is what creates energy that will drive you both into next week. That’s what’s important in your management conversations. As a manager you’re the fuel they need when the tank gets low. You don’t need to feel like the world’s on your shoulders. It’s step-by-step. Focus on getting to next week with the best energy possible. Learn the art of that, and do it better every week. That’s the way you can become better at life. That’s the way to become the inspirational weekly leader.
“To say! To know how to say! To know how to exist via the written voice and the intellectual image! This is all that matters in life” – Pessoa
“We may know that the work we continue to put off doing will be bad. Worse, however, is the work we never do” – Pessoa
Building positive existential energy among a number of people makes both you and them feel unstoppable enough to take on unstoppable work. It’s a fortifying cycle to have inspirational meetings with a people leader every week. Sometimes, then, it’s best to push out beyond your job title, because you’re a person who knows you can do more for that person over there. Because in your spirit you know you’re a great manager.
So go and make it what you do.
Become a magnetic manager, and meaning will arrive.
Be the energy donor that so many people are silently pleading for.
Do that and you’ve become the magical, pure asset that every person in every business needs.
I’m on a journey to inspire 200,000 people professionals and leaders to positively evolve our workplaces