“A true Master is not the one with the most students, but one who creates the most Masters. A true leader is not the one with the most followers, but one who creates the most leaders.” — Neale Donald Walsch

Successful leaders understand the difference between things and people in an organization. They know that it’s important to manage things, but that it’s even more important to lead people. Leaders don’t just mouth empty phrases like “people are our greatest resource;” they demonstrate by their actions that people – not strategy, products, plans, processes, or systems – are the most critical factor in an organization’s performance. That’s why leaders invest heavily in growing and developing people, while managers see people as objects to be commanded and controlled.

In his Fortune article “A New Way to Think about Employees,” Thomas Stewart writes, “We should not confuse human beings with human capital at all. Surely people are not assets in the same way that their desks and chairs are assets, or that factories or bank balances are.” Phrases like “head count” dehumanize and objectify people. We could really push this further and make the same argument for “human resources.” Most of us want to be treated as a person, not a resource. Indeed, some companies now refer to this department in their organizations as People rather than Human Resources. Most of us want to be treated as a person, not a resource.

Managers who view “their people” as property, are cold and dispassionate. In fact, they would make perfect donors for heart transplants – their hearts have had such little use!

It’s heartless to view people as less than human. Maybe it’s just because I was raised on a farm, but whenever I hear managers use the term “head count” (and I hear it a lot), it grates on me like fingernails scratching a blackboard. When managers say things like “We’ve got to reduce our head count,” or “What’s the head count in your division?” I immediately think of cattle. In the community where I grew up, farmers would ask each other questions like “how many head are you milking?” when talking about cows in a dairy herd. People were never referred to this way.

Of course, some managers will argue that “head count” is just an expression – “mere words,” they’ll say. Sometimes that’s true. But in my experience, these “mere words” often convey a deeper set of values about how people are viewed and treated in an organization. Despite all their pious declarations about the importance of people, leadership, and values, far too many managers treat people in their organizations with about as much care as they would attach to an inventory of office equipment. They are just one more set of assets to be managed. These just happen to be breathing and have skin wrapped around them.