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Injecting humanity into leadership in 2021

  • 5 Min Read

Today, leadership is far from being the simple story of governance and subordination that it once was. But in 2021, it must be more compassionate and progressive than ever before

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Let me set the scene for you. More than 20 years ago, a younger, thinner and darker-haired version of me was working my first job out of college as a corporate recruiter. But one day, a client of mine came to me offering me the opportunity to work as his divisional training manager. We had multiple plants in this new division, and part of my onboarding process was to visit each of them.  So, my new boss thought it’d be a great bonding exercise to take a six-hour car trip together for my first plant visit. We drove in his car from Georgia to Virginia.

Back then, the only connection you had with the office while traveling was a beeper and the voicemail on your office phone – no cell phones or laptops. So the two of us were really focused on the conversation. We discussed politics, religion, our families, and everything in between, but one thing my boss said has stuck with me ever since. He said: “Chuck, relationships are like bank accounts – you make deposits and you make withdrawals, but you never want to overdraw your account.”

This memory came back to me a couple of months ago while I was facilitating a roundtable for HRD entitled ‘Transforming talent in a changing world’. During the session, one of the panellists offered this perspective: “This year has shown us that several of our leaders do not have the values we need to lead the organisation through this challenging time. So from now on, we will be hiring leaders for values first, and technical skills second.”

That comment really resonated with me and I began thinking about the importance of values in my own leadership style. One of the major themes as we head into 2021 is the importance of how our leaders are acting towards employees. Here are three key elements that I have determined are key to investing more in your relationships and injecting humanity, empathy and authenticity into your leadership style.

Ask curious questions and listen

One way a leader can invest in their relationships is to truly listen. By listening intently, leaders can pick up nuggets of information that can in turn be formed into curious questions. One of the things that I’ve loved about my career in HR is learning people’s stories: what makes them tick; who influenced them to pursue a particular career; where were they born; where they’ve lived; what their favourite books, movies and music artists are; and the list goes on.

By asking these questions, it can help you and your teams find common ground for you to connect on. But perhaps more importantly, you’re investing in that relationship. Every time you ask a question, you’re making deposits into that account.

Show your human side

A lot of leaders can be too proud to share anything too personal about themselves. They’re afraid that if they share too much, it may show weakness. An example I can share from my own life is that I am the parent of two children with autism, and for years I was reluctant to share that with people at work. I didn’t want to burden people with that knowledge. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I was afraid that it could become a distraction, or perhaps even an excuse.

However, I eventually realised that it’s important to share my human side – and that includes information about my family life. I realised it offered greater insight into who I am as a person. And most importantly, as a leader, it shows people that I have challenges outside of work – that I’m human, not perfect. This can encourage others to share more about themselves and the external factors they deal with in their lives. This should be seen as another priceless opportunity to find common ground and invest in a working relationship.

Make connections

Fulfilling the above will allow you to learn a great deal more about a person and their various facets. This can enable you to make connections with different people that could lead to breaking down barriers within your organisation.

Let me give you an example. I was once involved in a merger between two companies, leading the regional HR function. I had two staff members (for the purposes of the story, let’s call them Julie and Jane) from opposite companies that could not get along with each other, and were constantly involved in disputes. During the course of my conversations with each of them, I learned that they had both suffered through the tragedy of losing a sibling. So one day, during a conversation with the two of them to discuss the ongoing conflict, I said to Jane: “Did you know Julie lost a sibling too?” Jane said no.

Though a highly sensitive topic, I felt this would help with breaking down some of the barriers in Jane and Julie’s relationship. This was another ‘investment’ in that relationship account, and helped to inject a powerful sense of humanity into a fraught situation.

Another more recent example is a conversation I had with a young alumnus from the same university I attended. One thing I knew is that she studied Accounting, which was my major before switching to Human Resources. I asked her if she knew one of my professors, Dr. Gary Waters. As it turns out, she had actually been his graduate assistant while pursuing her Master’s degree. Dr. Waters had played a pivotal role in my career when he challenged me on whether I really wanted to pursue accounting. Ultimately, that conversation was the first domino in me changing my focus to Human Resources.

By making that connection and discovering that commonality, we made a big deposit into our relationship account.

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