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How to be a more humane business leader

Turbulent times demand a great deal from leaders, often at the very time they might be feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and uncertain themselves.

It’s tempting to pull back, put on a front and pretend you have all the answers. This is one of the worst things you can do, both for your own wellbeing and for your people. What you really need to do is double down on connection, on being the best human you can be by drawing on compassion not judgement.

This takes courage, candour, and conviction, and enables you to work towards a culture that heals and not hurts your people, those you serve, and ultimately your business.

Leading with compassion:

Make kindness your kind of success

In times of crisis compassionate leadership is a must have

Build a kind culture (not a nice one)

Essentially, the things that make you a decent human are the same as those that enable you to become a more humane leader. Think about how you show up, how you engage with those around you, and whether or not you are having the impact you want. Often, we need to pay attention to our attitude, our emotional energy, and how we look after our own wellbeing before we can truly connect humanely with others.

Assuming you’ve considered the above here are three ways to become a more humane leader.


1. Check your judgement

Humans are naturally compassionate; according to Darwin, it is a prerequisite for the survival of our species. We tend our young for much longer than most species, we feel what those around us feel, and we generally care for our fellow man. We are connected. Until fear and uncertainty get in the way, that is. Then we become judgemental and stop trusting others and possibly even ourselves.

Neurologically the human brain hates uncertainty, it has evolved to use patterns, repetition and predictability to process large amounts of complex information quickly. When information doesn’t fit the expected pattern, it creates uncertainty which makes us feel threatened and changes our neurochemistry, helping us focus on survival over compassion. Judgement, of ourselves, or others and even the fear of being judged all diminish our ability to be compassionate.

In reality, we all move back and forth between compassion and judgement, and in the very short term, judgement might give you some relief from uncertainty, or enough distance from the thing you fear to keep you functioning, but in the longer term, it destroys the connection and trust you need to be a humane leader.


2. Vulnerability is a superpower

This is where courage and candour really count. No one likes to be kept in the dark, or feel they are only getting half the story. To truly follow you, as opposed to doing what they are told, your people need to feel safe, heard, and valued. If you are hiding behind a veneer of toughness, putting on your game face, the chances are they won’t trust you.

Vulnerability is not about spewing your innermost secrets, or even admitting you don’t know. It is about connectedness, using parts of your story or your experience – good or bad – to draw people in, to enable them to contribute, to feel, and to work with you towards resolution.

Vulnerability is a superpower because it makes you relatable, and enables others to understand, human to human, not necessarily because they have all the details, but because they feel you, they are connected.

It takes courage to be vulnerable, you both need to trust yourself and those you are being vulnerable with, but here’s the deal: you decide what you share, when you share and who you share with – ultimately you set the boundaries.


3. Trade in hope and possibility

Hope helps us to look beyond what is right now, to what might be, to what’s possible. Explore what’s possible with your people, involve them and create hope.

It’s a powerful and compelling emotion, and more importantly, hope builds confidence in our collective and individual ability to succeed. The caveat here is that people need to trust you to make a difference, so focus on the things you have some control over.

The 'why' behind what you do matters, have courage in your own conviction and remember to share this with your people. Most people want to be part of something bigger, so help them understand the bigger mission and how their contribution makes a difference.

When people feel like they belong, they will go the extra mile when they can, they will feel safe to contribute, and to offer ideas. All of these things help to create a sense of agency and critically workplace cultures that heal not hurt, reducing burnout, staff turnover and general discontent.

In turn, this will enable you to be more of a humane leader, and not solely a directive manager.


Lynda Holt is honorary professor of social leadership at University of Salford and CEO of Health Service 360.