We Should All Practice the Human Side of Leadership

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on February 4, 2019

I recently had the privilege of speaking about the human side of leadership at a fireside chat event sponsored by the Union League of Philadelphia. My fireside chat partner was Karin Copeland, CEO of Create X Change and former executive director of the Arts and Business Council of Philadelphia.

I described the human side of leadership as a set of beliefs and practices that bring out the best in leaders and their employees, a company’s most important asset. These beliefs and practices help the company achieve a competitive advantage over the long term.

Where do these beliefs and practices come from? Some are discovered through the practice of the art of leadership. Others are intuitive and instinctive.

So, how does one practice the human side of leadership?

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

Tone at the top is set by the CEO and the senior leadership team, and reflects the ethical climate of the organization, while culture reflects how employees within the organization deal with each other, customers and other stakeholders. As the leader of your business, ensure that you set the right tone and culture. They become the behavioral norms of your employees.

Both tone and culture determine whether employees will trust their leaders and their fellow employees. 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 are the elements of tone and culture?

  • Treat all employees with respect.
  • Act ethically and with integrity in all that you do.
  • Never lie. It undermines trust with everyone you deal with.
  • Understand that you are measured not just on financial results, but also on customer experience and company reputation.
  • Don’t micromanage – set expectations, empower and hold direct reports accountable for results.
  • Set goals with your direct reports’ participation so they have ownership in them and in what they do at the company.
  • Don’t permit a tyrant to abuse the people reporting to them.
  • Protect whistleblowers and fire those who try to retaliate against them.
  • Adopt employee-friendly policies.
  • Listen to the people in your organization. They can teach you the best lessons.

Recognize that emotional intelligence is a key leadership trait

In a 2004 Harvard Business Review article, “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 interacting with others, the following six EQ behavioral rues 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.
  • When a direct report shares an idea or proposes a new initiative, listen.
  • Take the blame if it’s your fault. Give credit where credit is due.
  • Avoid being an imperial leader. Don’t threaten others to achieve your goals.
  • Don’t self-aggrandize.

Communicate empathy

One of the most important skills of any leader is to know when and how to communicate empathy. Former Michigan State University Interim President John Engler and former MSU president Lou Anna Simon, who he replaced, both demonstrated that they lack empathy. They made insensitive remarks about the sexual abuse victims of Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, physician to athletes at MSU and national team doctor for USA Gymnastics, who was sentenced up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing young women.

A Jan. 11 Detroit News article quotes Engler, speaking about those sexual abuse victims who were not personally in the news, as saying, “In some ways they have been able to deal with this better than the ones who’ve been in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition.”

“Enjoying that moment … the awards and recognition?” Did Engler not understand how inappropriate and insensitive that sounds?

On Jan. 16, Engler resigned his position as interim president of MSU effective Jan. 23, after losing the support of the MSU board. In his resignation letter, Engler did not acknowledge the comments that led to his loss of MSU trustee support. He blamed politics as the reason.

In the face of growing criticism from many of the students, faculty and staff at Michigan State on how Simon handled the accusations against Nassar, and after losing the confidence of a number of MSU board members, Simon resigned her position as long-time president of the university on Jan. 24, 2018.

In her resignation letter, Simon wrote, “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”

“Politicized,” Dr. Simon? I am not sure how the abuse of so many young women can be politicized.

It is evident that neither Engler nor Simon knew how to communicate empathy.

Allow employees to violate the rules when it is in the best interest of the company to do so

I learned this as a sales manager for my company early in my career. I ordered a recall of contaminated product without the authority to do so. My boss was traveling and unreachable. Due to the rising cost each day the recall was delayed, I ordered the recall.

I was celebrated, not terminated for my decision. I was taught how to make employees feel trusted, empowered and valued by their boss. Hire people with common sense and good critical judgment so they know when to violate the rules.

What do the above four leadership practices have in common? To me, they help define the human side of leadership. As a leader, whenever I have a doubt about how to deal with a situation, it’s hard to go wrong if I follow the simple adage, “Lead like you like to be led.” Good advice for all leaders.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Follow Silverman on LinkedIn and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

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