Be a human leader

Leadership  Relationships
16 April, 2018

Striving for greatness? Use a personal touch to boost your team’s engagement and performance.

“Leadership today is about unlearning management and relearning being human.” – Javier Pladevall, CEO of Volkswagen Audi Retail, Spain

Recently, while I was speaking to some team members, they mentioned that their boss was efficient. He ran robust reviews and had clear dashboards. However, when he was in the office, he spent large chunks of his time behind his computer (unless he was conducting reviews). They felt that the personal touch and connect was missing.

This is not uncommon. While data and technology have brought in tremendous advantages that enable leaders to better manage teams, effective leaders need to look beyond this to connect with the hearts of team members.

In Why Do So Many Managers Forget They’re Human Beings?, an insightful article published in the Harvard Business Review. Authors RasmusHougaard, Jacqueline Carter and Vince Brewerton surveyed and interviewed around 1,000 leaders and reached the conclusion that today, more than ever before, it is crucial to be human in order to be a great leader.

As more young people enter the workforce, the concept of job satisfaction is changing. Millennials (broadly, the generation born between 1982 and 2000) now make up 47 percent of the working age population in India. For them, a good compensation package and perks aren’t enough-they want to feel connected, to be happy, and to find their place in the bigger picture.

Meeting these lofty expectations is a big task, one that is largely dependent on leaders who can build strong personal relationships and provide much-needed inspiration and meaning to their teams. In other words, leaders who are not afraid to be human. So, this week, my message focuses on what it means to be a human leader and suggestions on how to get there.

By and large, leaders tend to see themselves as motivating and inspirational figures—over 70 percent are convinced of their own success, according to a McKinsey survey conducted among senior management in the US. But it seems their employees don’t quite agree: in a Gallup survey, 82 percent of respondents found their leaders to be extremely uninspiring. In another study, 65 percent of American employees asserted that they would give up a salary increase if it meant seeing their leader get fired!

Clearly, there is a disconnect: many leaders are currently failing to meet their team members’ needs and expectations.

This is a gap that must be addressed urgently. When people are happy and motivated, they are more committed to their jobs and thus more productive. A McKinsey study backed up this common-sense link with data: when employees are intrinsically motivated, their commitment increases by 32 percent while their performance jumps by 16 percent. Thus, simply by not being human enough, leaders could be costing their organisations dearly.

The authors of Why Do So Many Managers Forget They’re Human Beings? explain that a global transformation is now taking place in the senior ranks of many companies across the world. C-suites at these organisations are putting serious thought and effort into creating a culture that places people at the centre, and cultivating more human leadership. The end objective is to boost job engagement and fulfilment—for both employees as well as leaders.

As leaders, we can certainly take a leaf out of their book. Here are a few ways in which you can become a more human leader, as recommended by the authors:

1. Heighten your self-awareness

Effective human leadership begins with greater self-knowledge. If you cannot understand and manage yourself, how can you understand and manage other people? Self-awareness is the first step towards becoming more empathetic. When you get in touch with your own feelings and motivations, you also enhance your ability to step into someone else’s shoes and gain insight into their inner life.

The practice of mindfulness is a wonderful way to raise your emotional awareness. Given the number of successful leaders who swear by it, meditation is certainly worth a try for anyone who wants to become more self-aware. You could begin by reading this excellent piece on mindfulness by Daniel Goleman, which includes a guided meditation.

Another way to connect with your inner self is to intentionally pause and assess how you feel at important moments: when you achieve something big, when you fail, when something you anticipated falls through, when a colleague offers support, when a team member lets you down… Look in the mirror and ask yourself: how am I feeling? Take a few minutes to really think about it.

2. Make it personal

Too often, leaders say: it’s not personal, it’s business. Well, being a human leader means that you need to turn this tired advice on its head. You need to make things personal again.

How do your plans and decisions affect people? Go beyond the logical and tactical realm, and make sure you also account for the emotional and personal impact.

Put yourself in the person’s shoes-how are they going to feel? To move away from an emotionless, robotic leadership culture, it is imperative for us to treat each other as human beings-not cogs in a machine.

The manufacturing company, Barry-Wehmiller, has mastered the art of human leadership. Rejecting the idea that people are simply parts that need to be “managed”, their leadership sees the entire workforce as a family—a unit in which every single person matters and is valued. During the recession, they came up with caring, innovative ways to reduce costs (e.g. requesting employees to take a month of unpaid leave), instead of resorting to mass layoffs.

The company CEO, Bob Chapman, has described this radical business approach in his book, Everybody Matters. He explains that while nearly all leaders pay lip service to the idea that people matter, many tend to miss what this actually means:

Rare are the leaders of organizations who will tell you that their people don’t matter. However, there is a big difference between understanding the value of the people inside an organization and actually making decisions that consider their needs. It’s like saying, “my kids are my priority,” but always putting work first. What kind of family dynamic or relationship with our kids do we think results? The same is true in business. When we say our people matter but we don’t actually care for them, it can shatter trust and create a culture of paranoia, cynicism, and self-interest.

3. Take yourself out of the equation

Selflessness is the bedrock of human leadership. This mean putting yourself aside and considering the long-term impact on your team members. Is the decision in their best interests? Will they and the organisation do better as a result?

As the authors emphasise, being unselfish doesn’t mean becoming a doormat. All it means is that your main motivation is not personal gain or profit. As leaders, our primary responsibility is to facilitate the success of those who work with us. Which means that every decision and every action should be given the litmus test: will this benefit my team members or colleagues?

4. Be compassionate

A compassionate leader wants you to flourish and always has your back. If you’ve been lucky enough to work with such a person, you know that such leadership can fundamentally change the way people approach their work. Leading with compassion makes your team feel safe, thus increasing their loyalty and commitment towards you as well as the organisation. The authors recommend a great way to be more compassionate on a day-to-day basis:

Make a habit of asking one simple question whenever you engage with anyone: How can I help this person have a better day?

5. Play to your strengths

In his article, True Leaders Are Human, Duane Dike explains that not all inspirational leaders have to be extroverts:

Under true leader models, leaders don’t need to be the extroverted, charismatic types. Introverted leaders can be just as effective, in their own way. Introverted leaders can be comfortable in the awareness of their introspective personalities. Introverted true-leaders can be great members of small teams through their ability to nurture strong one-on-one relationships. At the other end of the spectrum, extroverted true-leaders can be more effective in large teams through their charismatic personalities.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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