Human Leadership

By Scott Westerman
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The main thing in life is not to be afraid of being human. ~Aaron Carter

My mentors, Barry and Susan Robertson of the Stop at Nothing organization shared this wisdom this week.

People often ask us, “What is the difference between an average leader and a great leader?” As we reflect on the many leaders we have interacted with over twenty-two years of business, a key quality that comes to mind is simply being human.

Of course, a great leader needs to be competent in business skills, such as strategic planning or managing business processes; but to transform into a leader who inspires optimal performance involves emotional intelligence, and the ability to connect with your employees and colleagues at all levels.  We call this Human Leadership.

Here are the Five Key Elements of Human Leadership:

  1. Lead With Caring:  This means developing people: coaching them for improved performance, applying toughness when needed, and teaching life lessons.  It also means being more open, rather than all business.  This results in rising loyalty, morale, and teamwork – and translates to bottom line results.
  2. Put Yourself Out There: Be aware when you are experiencing self-doubt.  No one has it all figured out.  Hiding your weaknesses leads to counter-productive behaviors like defensiveness and aggressiveness.  These will no doubt impact your communication and influence, and your ability to drive results.  What great leaders need is conversation, listening, and continuous learning.
  3. Become More Self-Aware:  The more honest you are regarding your individual business capabilities and emotional intelligence strengths and weaknesses, the more you can increase your effectiveness.  Learn to courageously ask for feedback.  It will allow you to make behavioral changes that would remove any barriers you’ve put up with people.
  4. Hire People Who Are Different (and Better) Than Yourself: Surrounding yourself with like personalities will only amplify blind spots and stunt the growth of the team.  Hiring people with better abilities in different areas will allow you to delegate and empower more, while inspiring those people to fulfill their roles and achieve the results you expect of them.
  5. Connect:  If you are open, people will be more open with you.  They will feel true caring for their career and well-being, and they will return by caring for their leader and their organization’s success.

“To what extent,” they ask us, “are you practicing Human Leadership?”

Great question! As wise as Barry and Su’s words may be, we are often drawn in the opposite direction.

  • It’s easy to be caring when things are running smoothly, but when the going gets tough, we often lead with distrust and in the direction of self-interest.
  • We are terrified of being found to be unworthy of the trust placed in us so it’s easier to avoid risk than it is to take risk.
  • Nobody knows our strengths and weaknesses like we do, but many of us spend a lifetime sublimating them rather than taking that first great step toward inner growth, an honest self assessment.
  • We’re drawn to people who look and act like we do, even though one of the most important factors in sustainable success is diversity.
  • And we’ve all been burned, some of us so often that we keep up our shields and miss out on life-changing, fulfilling relationships.

So how do we make progress in each of these five critical leadership areas?

How to be a caring leader in tough timesHave hope. Teena Cahill, PsyD, writing for, a support site for caregivers, says this:  “Nature set us up to benefit from feelings of hope. It is one of our innate survival mechanisms. When we choose to have hopeful thoughts, chemicals are released that help us have a more positive attitude and more energy – similar to what happens when we exercise. This energy and more positive approach to our problems helps us to look at things in a different way, see previously unknown possibilities and become more proactive and solution-based rather than feel so overwhelmed.”

How to put yourself out there – Find the courage to be vulnerable. Brené Brown has researched the issue of vulnerability for 6 years. Her Ted Talk on the subject Is well worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch it. She says that, “in order for connection to happen, we have to be seen.” The one variable that separates people with a strong sense of love and belonging from those without it is that they believe that they are worthy. The essence of worthiness, Brown says, is having the courage to be imperfect… Be willing to let go of who you think you should be to become who you really are. People who have that strong sense of love and belonging believe that what makes them vulnerable, makes them beautiful. And most importantly, Brown tells us to come to a realization that who you really are is good enough. “When we work from a place that says, ‘im enough’, then we stop screaming and start listening, are kinder and gentler to those around us and ultimately kinder and gentler to ourselves.”

How to become more self aware – Do a 360. Three hundred and sixty degree feedback is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. It will also be one of the most painful. Choose a group of about a half dozen people in your chain of command, your boss, some peers and a cross section of people you serve. Invite them to confidentially and candidly assess how effective you are as a leader. There are a number of on-line resources for this exercise that know the right questions to ask, aggregate the results and share them with you in a manner that helps you identify how you can improve your leadership effectiveness. Try it. You may not like all of the experience, but if you learn from it, you will become a much better leader.

How to hire a diverse team – When you have an opening, carefully and thoughtfully write the job description and posting. And when you have culled the resumes into a list of people you want to interview in person, choose a small committee to help you. This group should include a representative from every constituency the person will serve. Discuss and debate the efficacy of each candidate after you interview them. And as you do, listen very carefully to what the team tells you. A side benefit of this approach is that everyone on the hiring team has skin in the game and can be accountable to help your new team member succeed.

How to connect – Become a great listener and have an agenda. My all time favorite interviewer was WJR’s J.P. McCarthy. He came well prepared to each interview and his questions focused totally on the guest and not on himself. And having an agenda doesn’t mean the negative connotation we have about preconceived notions or control. Michael Slind, co-author of Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations told the Harvard Business review, “..a real good conversation is open, but it’s not aimless. A real conversation, even if it’s just between two people, if it’s not just about small talk there’s an agenda there. We want to get something out of it.” Remember that this works both ways. It’s not just about what you want, it’s about finding out what they want, too.

Human leadership is understanding that we’re all imperfect, we all have fears and self doubt, but we are also capable of breathtaking achievement, stretching beyond our self imposed limitations and enjoying the ride. When we aspire to lead, our ultimate objective should be inspiring the ordinary people who work with us to do extraordinary things.

If this is our focus, another amazing thing happens, we will do extraordinary things, too.

Feedback always welcome to Scott