Hardwired Humans are ...Individual Beings


Humans are one of the few species that appear to have a sense of individual being. Chimps also seem to have this sense, but gorillas don’t.

In Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey describes an occasion when a curious young gorilla, Digit, played with a hand mirror Dian had placed in the foliage. “Digit propped himself on his forearms and sniffed the glass. As he viewed his image, his lips pursed, his head cocked quizzically, he gave a long sigh. Digit continued staring calmly at his reflection before reaching behind the glass to “feel” for the body of the figure before him.” (p183) Did Digit recognise “himself” in the mirror? Probably not – scientists since Dian Fossey have found that it’s only chimps who appear to recognise “self”. 

The way scientists test for this attribute is to provide the animal being studied, say a monkey, gorilla or chimpanzee, with a mirror. After becoming familiar with the mirror the animal is lightly sedated and the scientist paints a blue spot on the animal’s forehead. The animal comes back to consciousness and happens upon the mirror. In looking in the mirror, it is only the chimp that goes to wipe the blue spot off its forehead. In other words, the chimpanzee appears to know that it’s me in the mirror and that “a blue spot has appeared on my forehead”. 

In leading a specifies like ours, a critical attribute of leadership is to respect and treat people as individual beings. The opposite of this attribute is leaders who are judged by their people as not caring about them as individuals – a sense that the leader does not value people for who they are. 

What does it look like to be a leader who leads at the individual level? Here are some ideas.

Milestone Days  

A leader of a small business told me recently that he and his team regularly recognise “milestone days” – they find something to celebrate. A recent one was “Name-Change Day”. One of the team was getting married and was changing her name. Another on the team had divorced and was pleased to be changing her name back to her maiden name. So that became a good reason to celebrate!


Birthdays are a great way to respect individuals – most people carry a childhood imprint of being made a fuss of on their birthday, and continuing that in the workplace triggers happy feelings. As a manager, that was one task I did not delegate! I was the one who reminded others of the birthdays and made sure we did something to celebrate. 


Work-life Balance  

To demonstrate his interest in supporting people to keep work in perspective, one leader started a “Balance-Buddy Program”. The initiative involved each team member developing three personal goals – one goal covering self, one covering family and friends and one covering community. Team members paired-up to help each other achieve their goals. The buddies talked every two weeks to check on each other’s progress on these non-work related goals. And the leader continued to take an interest in the goals.  

Individual Personalities and Strengths

Leading individuals means giving people the latitude to be themselves – if we can’t afford to be ourselves we put on a mask. Part of demonstrating respect for individual differences is by playing to people’s strengths (and give latitude on weaknesses provided any “weakness” is not undermining others). 

Personal Identity 

There are certain subjects that we need to know about other people to know what makes them who they are. These are the same subjects that people would need to know about you to know you and your identity. These subjects include the person’s “family” situation, their interests and hobbies, their career background, their early life experiences that have shaped them as individuals, their personal and work achievements they are most proud of and their aspirations. How many of these topics do you know about the team who works for you (or others you work closely with)?


Individual Catch-ups  

The single most important leadership action a manager can take to connect with individuals is to schedule regular individual meetings with direct reports. These meetings should be for one hour and be held at least bi-weekly. The meetings provide a platform for respecting and connecting with individuals. The catch-ups provide the means for a leader to demonstrate interest in the person’s role, to offer help and support and to delegate and hold people to account. 

How we spend our time is a signal to team members as to what you rate as important. What signals are you currently sending to your team, and what else or more could you do to signal that you are interested in them as individuals? Perhaps hold a mirror up to your own leadership style!


Andrew O'Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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