The New HR Is Leadership With Purpose

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug — HIPPOCRATIC OATH [MODERN VERSION]


Think of HR as a leadership level.

In The 5 Levels of Leadership, leadership expert John Maxwell explains the difference between a Level 1 Position leader and a Level 5 Pinnacle leader. Maxwell then shows us how we can progress up to higher levels of leadership.

As a Level 1 Position leader, people follow you because they have to. You are their boss. You possess the power. In contrast, as a Level 5 Pinnacle leader, people follow you because of who you are and what you represent. They believe in you as a person, as a leader and as someone who inspires.

Positional leadership is the lowest level of leadership.

Maxwell writes:

“Positional leadership is based on the rights granted by the position and title. They have subordinates, not team members. They rely on rules, regulations, policies, and organizational charts to control their people.”

Sound familiar? Ever work for a company like this?

Has HR ever felt like this?

Maxwell elaborates:

“A position is not a worthy destination for any person’s life. Security does not give purpose. Leadership is meant to be active and dynamic. Its purpose is to create positive change.”

The same goes for HR.

A company that relies on policy, rules and regulations is no worthy destination for any HR team. Security does not give HR purpose. HR is meant to be active and dynamic. Its purpose is to create positive change.

So, how does a Level 1 Position leader move up to a level 2 Permission leader? What needs to change in order for people to follow you not because they have to, but because they want to?

They shift from rules to relationships.

I work in People Ops at a startup in the bay area and our team is actively becoming more relational in our approach to people.

To get a better idea of how, let’s get specific.

We love dogs.

Our pet-friendly office is everyone’s favorite perk.

To set the expectation for appropriate pet behavior, every pet owner receives a copy of our Pet Guidelines.

One guideline states, ‘it is the responsibility of the owner to mitigate any pet behavior that interferes with another team member’s ability to work.’

Recently, an employee complained about how a co-worker’s dog disrupted their work. They came to People Ops. Our initial response was to add a strike to the pet owner’s employee profile. We’ve leaned on a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ tally system in the past.

Something didn’t feel quite right. We realized that as a People Ops team, we were acting like a Level 1, Position leader.

So we got relational.

Instead of giving the pet owner a strike, we recommended communication. We asked our employee to have a direct conversation about their concerns with their co-worker.

It worked.

They had the courage to engage in a face to face conversation. The pet owner stayed open to listening and understanding the other.

This small, yet significant change in approach reflects our development as individuals and as a department into Level 2 Permission leaders, shifting from HR to People Ops and from rules to relationships. Maxwell puts it nicely. He says,”you must think of people before you try to achieve progress”.

Relationship challenge accepted.