Photo credit: Rafal Olechowski

We should all practice the human side of leadership

 Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 10, 2023.

Over the years, I have developed a set of beliefs and practices that bring out the best in leaders and their employees. I wrote an article about practicing the human side of leadership in February 2019. This is an update of that article.

So, how do you practice the human side of leadership?

Set the right tone at the top and nurture the right culture

Employees want to work for a company with high standards for honesty, ethics and integrity, which are key elements of the human side of leadership. High standards are determined by the tone at the top and organizational culture set by the CEO and the senior leadership team. 

Tone at the top establishes the ethical climate of the organization, while culture reflects how employees within the organization engage with each other, customers and other stakeholders. As the leader of your business, ensure that you set the right tone and nurture the right culture. These become the behavioral norms of your employees. 

Tone and culture determine whether employees will trust both their leaders and their coworkers. Trust is built on honesty, ethics and integrity. Without trust, you can’t build a high-performance team. Without trust, you suffer high employee turnover and lose the talent you need to achieve success.

What should be your standard for honesty, ethics and integrity? Quoting Warren Buffett when he served as interim chairman of Solomon Brothers, “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

Recognize that emotional intelligence is a key leadership trait

In a 2004 Harvard Business Review article, titled “Leading by feel,” University of New Hampshire psychologist John D. Mayer wrote, “Emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.”

Based on my experience, the following EQ behavioral traits will contribute to your leadership effectiveness:

  • Recognize how other people perceive you.
  • Don’t communicate with others in a way that puts them on the defensive.
  • Treat all employees with dignity and respect.
  • Don’t micromanage—set expectations, empower your employees and then cut them loose to do their thing. Hold them accountable for results.
  • Take the blame if it’s your fault. Give credit where credit is due.
  • Don’t self-aggrandize.
Photo credit: Rafal Olechowski

Practice Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is a philosophy in which leaders within the organization focus on supporting their front line employees serving customers. 

Quoting Nick Bayer, CEO of Saxbys, “Organizations work best when they are upside down. Our café managers are the CEOs (café executive officers) of their businesses. All the people at headquarters exist to serve our café managers and their teams. We are here to help them to be better at their jobs.”

Be an effective communicator

Effective leaders are good listeners and encourage direct reports to share what they think, not what their leaders want to hear.

Effective leaders provide forums for employees to express their views, such as town meetings with groups of employees to talk about the status of the business and respond to questions.

Listen when your direct reports challenge paradigms

Paradigms are established ways of doing things. When a new approach is suggested, the wrong response is, “We have always done it that way.” Former Australian Executive Woman of the Year Catherine DeVrye has called these “the seven most expensive words in business.”

Challenging paradigms and thinking “out of the box” are crucial for achieving breakthrough results and building competitive advantage. Employees who challenge paradigms are your change agents. Listen to them.

Encourage your employees to develop a feeling of ownership for their area of responsibility

This was a lesson taught to me when I was president of my company’s Canadian subsidiary. We empowered the operator of one of the production units at our Toronto plant—an hourly employee—to develop the scope of a capacity expansion, a job certainly outside of his normal job responsibilities. After he successfully completed the assignment, he developed a sense of pride and ownership in the unit and how well it performed.

Encouraging employees to develop a sense of ownership in what they do was the foundation of our philosophy of continuous improvement that lowered costs and improved our competitiveness.

Recognize that your employees are your most valuable asset

Quoting Sir Richard Branson, co-founder of Virgin Group, “Clients [customers] do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients [customers].” Branson also said, “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

Develop these leadership traits. They will help you and your organization succeed.

Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at

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