All great leaders are devoted students of human nature.
The more effort and energy you invest in understanding why people do what they do, the better leader you become.
That’s the practical essence of human nature – why people do what they do.
Your biblical view and theological bias play no small part in what shapes your thinking. Sin, selfishness and a broken world is obviously part of the equation. But equally so is redemption, the Holy Spirit’s power, and purpose through Christ.
The tension between both of those powerful forces for good and evil is real and active.
The daily choices we all make in what sometimes seems like a fine line between good and evil, forms the ongoing patterns of human nature.
With that in mind, let’s focus on the more practical expressions of human behavior.
No matter how long you lead, people will still surprise you.
For example, I’m surprised at what I see happening in long-established marriages. More couples than ever before getting divorced after being married for thirty years or longer. I don’t have research to back that, and I don’t have a statistic to quote. But I’m watching it. It’s real. And it’s an emerging pattern.
When I ask the question, “Why is this happening?” That’s an example of how you study human nature. The better I understand the reason(s), the better I can lead people.
Like a doctor can’t help you if she doesn’t know why you’re sick, you can’t lead people when you don’t know what makes them tick.
Let’s go back to theology for just a minute. Don’t be too quick to dump everything into the bucket of sin nature and selfishness. That reality is true, but so is redemption.
We can all choose a better way. Therefore, knowing why some people choose right over wrong is critical. (and vice versa)
The study of human nature delivers principles that help you lead.
6 classic examples of human nature principles you want to know:
- Hurting people hurt people. They really don’t want to, but like the lion with a thorn in his paw, it’s just what happens. Find the thorn and help them remove it.
- Healthy people want to help people. The greatest meaning, joy, and significance comes from helping people change their life for the good. Help people mature to this purpose and provide opportunities for them to make a difference in people’s lives.
- If the reaction at hand is greater than the issue at hand, it’s always about something else. In those moments it’s important to refocus on discovering the real issue, and redirect your efforts there.
- Everyone wants to love and be loved. This is a reflection of God’s creation, and the potential for this to be realized is at the core of the gospel. Self-sabotaging behavior is not a reflection of a person’s true desire.
- When a person is under pressure or backed into a corner, they behave in a much more aggressive manner than usual. In those situations, a wise leader knows how to read the moment and “change the room” by relieving the pressure and helping to change their perspective.
- Everyone wants to win. No one wakes up in the morning praying for failure, regardless of what their behavior indicates. Deep down they want their life count. Help them win.
The more of these kinds of principles you embrace in your thinking, the better you lead.
In boxing, they say it’s the punch you didn’t see coming that knocks you out.
The same is true in leadership. If I had a nickel for every time a leader in trouble said to me: “I didn’t see that coming,” well, I’d have a lot of nickels!
5 daily practices to gain wisdom in human nature:
(I recommend reading the book of proverbs once a year as a great foundation.)
1) Get close.
You will never learn about human nature from a distance. The people you lead are human beings that hurt, laugh, cry, experience fear and joy, succeed and fail. The more you live it with them, the better you understand human nature.
2) Pay attention.
Keep your head in the game.
Get around people you don’t know very well. Listen more. Break your routines enough to learn new things from new people.
Like it’s possible to drive a car without paying attention, you can lead the same way. In both situations, you are headed for trouble.
3) Ask meaningful questions.
Get beneath the surface. This doesn’t mean you become serious all the time but ask thoughtful questions. Great questions come from great listening and people who care.
Growing in your understanding of people takes time, and questions help slow things down. As leaders we tend to resist “slow,” but sometimes it’s needed.
4) Read between the lines.
The ability to connect the dots is a great skill to develop. It’s often not what’s being said, but what isn’t being said that matters. And sometimes it’s how it’s said.
I’m not suggesting you become a professional counselor, that’s not the point here. But knowing human nature, like the six examples I listed above, will help you discern, lead and serve people better.
5) Look for patterns and trends.
It’s not that you can’t learn from one situation, you can. But you gain more substance and application when you see a new trend from a repeated pattern.
For example, if you have a staff of thirty people and two are disgruntled, that doesn’t carry the same weight if thirteen are disgruntled. That is a trend, and you need to understand why!