How to be a Humane Leader in 7 Surprisingly Simple Steps
Your power and influence must be carefully managed
Promotion into leadership isn’t just a reward for doing great work. It’s a serious responsibility. You are now accountable for the work of your entire organization. You are now responsible for the careers of your employees and their livelihood. You may not realize it, but you are also now directly impacting their health and wellbeing. As a new leader, you can learn how to nurture the spark of your team, or unintentionally quench it with your actions.
A leader directly influences their employees’ sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, and happiness at work. A bad boss can clearly make employees unhappy while they are in the office. But, what you may not realize is that this also bleeds over into their mental and physical health, and can damage their relationships with their families.
On the other hand, a good boss can influence employee retention, dramatically improve productivity, and create lasting positive relationships that extend well beyond the walls of the corporation. When promoted into leadership, most of us have the best intentions and want to be a “good boss.”
Yes, there are a few bad apples that simply suck as leaders. Sadly, we’ve all experienced a few of those bosses. But, I think that many new leaders simply don’t understand the unintended consequences and ripple effects of their actions. Once you become a leader, you are perceived very differently and you need to be hyperaware of how your words and actions affect your team.
7 Simple Steps
Obviously, there are entire books on the topic of Leadership and how to be a great leader. But, here are 7 simple steps you can take to be a more humane leader starting today.
- Categorize your feedback
- Time your communication
- Set realistic priorities
- Be transparent about priorities
- Share your time intentionally
- Get involved at the right time
- Delegate and trust
These 7 steps are described in more detail below.
1. Categorize your feedback
As a leader, you need to understand the impact your casual comments can have on your team. You may think that you are just offering your opinion or an observation, but they will often treat your passing thoughts as commands.
I remember a clear example of this when working with one new leader a number of years ago. A product team was reviewing progress with this leader and shared some changes they had made to the product, explaining how they had worked night and day for a week to make it happen.
He gave a brief look of surprise and chagrin, but said nothing at the time (which would have demoralized the team). I knew him well enough to follow up on this when they left the room. He truly felt bad that they had worked so hard to make those changes.
He said, “I was just sharing my opinion. I didn’t expect that they would make those changes. It wasn’t that important.” We had to explain to him that even a passing comment carried a lot of weight given his position. So, we put some new process into place to categorize executive feedback for our teams.
You can, and should, do the same. Come up with your own system for how you want to categorize your feedback for your organization. For example:
- Opinion: This is just my opinion based on my knowledge and experience, so take it with a grain of salt.
- Nice to have: The changes I’m suggesting would be nice to have, but it’s not critical enough to delay the project or have the team work overtime.
- Very important: I strongly encourage that you investigate this or make this change. If you decide not to, there had better be strong evidence supporting your decision.
- Must have: This feedback is non-negotiable and not up for debate. Just make the changes.
2. Time your communication
So many leaders are guilty of communicating with their teams as soon as they have something to share. We often work late nights and weekends, and don’t stop to think about the time when we hit Send on that email. I know that I’ve made this mistake as well.
As a leader, you set the example for work-life balance. Through your actions you establish expectations and norms for working hours and availability. Know that sending that email, text, or Slack message late at night will result in your team feeling like they have to stay up and respond. Sending emails over the weekend will spawn an email thread that goes on and on.
I remember a particularly unpleasant weekend when my boss and the big boss kicked off a fire drill on a Saturday morning. I was at a soccer game watching my children play. An urgent email notification came through from my boss. That kicked off a series of conversations that resulted in us digging deep into our metrics for a particular product and writing up a proposal for how we would address a recent decline. Of course, it all had to be ready by Monday morning.
The reality was that this product wasn’t our crown jewel and the specific country of concern wasn’t a large enough customer base to even matter. Seriously, we weren’t curing cancer or designing the future of clean energy. It’s pretty damn ridiculous that we were put through the wringer for that product, now that I look back on it. Anyone in the Tech industry can give you dozens of examples when they were asked to work nights and weekends for a silly project that ended up being canceled. It’s sad, really.
If you want to be a humane leader, learn when to communicate to allow people to have a personal life. After spending more than 2 decades in the industry, I can tell you that the hustle is bullsh*t in the end. Life is more important than some stupid project at some company that doesn’t really care about you, your career, or your life (it is a business relationship, after all).
Feel free to write up your responses, emails, and messages, but save them as a draft until you can send them during normal working hours. Yes, there are sometimes real emergencies and roles that require being available 24/7. But please, as a leader, don’t expect everyone to be available and respond 24/7.
3. Set realistic priorities
You can’t have a huge list of #1 priorities. When everything is a top priority, nothing is a top priority. As a new leader, you will soon realize that prioritization is critical for resource allocation, team motivation, and successful execution.
The mistake that I’ve seen new leaders make is that they want everything to be done with the utmost sense of urgency and level of quality. That would be great, if we were machines that could flawlessly and tirelessly execute day in and day out. But, we’re human and we only have so many hours in the day and can only dedicate our focus and energy to a few limited areas to be the most successful. Spread human beings too thin for too long, expecting that they will give 110% to every single project, and bad things will eventually happen.
At one of my past jobs, the company set a top priority for the quarter. The entire organization knew what it was, got behind it, and focused all effort into making that priority successful. It worked amazingly well and there was a surprising amount of harmony across the teams. Then, the company got greedy. The next quarter there were 3 top priorities. Somehow, they were all magically the “top.” Needless to say, the wheels came off the bus.
As a leader, you must establish priorities to focus your team and have them do their best work. You also can’t always behave like the “building is on fire.” Reasonably classify urgency when you set the priorities as well. Never have more than 5 priorities and force a stack rank of even those. Critically, how those priorities became top priorities should never be a secret.
4. Be transparent about priorities
It’s not enough to just set priorities, you need to be completely transparent about the list, the stack rank, and why they are priorities. I would hope that you have a process in place to determine your organization’s priorities. This could include weighted factors such as strategic importance to the company, brand alignment, associated revenue, cost savings, competitive urgency, customer value, etc. Score each priority so that it is crystal clear why the #1 priority is your number one.
Your organization should have full access to the priorities, the stack rank, and the scoring system that determined their order. There should be no mystery, controversy, or conflict. When companies get this right, it helps guide day-to-day resource allocation, project processes, and decision making. When it is confusing or opaque, it puts teams in conflict.
I can recall times when priorities were not clear in some of my past jobs. It had unexpected ripple effects throughout the broader organization that eventually required executive intervention to resolve the issues. People were fighting over resources, each thinking that their own project was a higher priority than the others. Don’t let this happen.
As a leader, it is your job to make sure that everyone in your organization understands the rationale behind the stack rank of their priorities. This not only helps everyone do their job, but it helps them understand why you are spending more of your own time and energy with the top-ranked initiatives. That brings up the next step.
5. Share your time intentionally
When you are a new leader, you may not understand that where you spend your time sends a message to your team. Your time is scarce and valuable, so how you spend it implies favoritism. Your days of casual conversation, coffee, and lunch are gone. Who you spend time with will be scrutinized.
I’ve worked with leaders who clearly had an inner circle. It was obvious that these employees were in the know and had much more influence than the rest of us. I’ve also been guilty of grabbing coffee with people simply because I enjoyed talking with them. I soon found out that everyone notices this.
To reduce unintentional stress and avoid the perception of favoritism, a leader must intentionally share attention with the broader team. Obviously, you will spend more time with your direct reports, peers, and boss than you do with others. But, you should especially be careful to be intentional with time with your directs.
Also, you can have skip level meetings or group lunches to connect with your broader organization. This often will help you get to the heart of the matter when you suspect that there are issues that might not be making their way to you through the intervening layers of management. As you move higher in the organization, you will discover that time is your most valuable resource and it is important to use it meaningfully.
6. Get involved at the right time
Leadership is different than being an individual contributor (IC), in so many ways. Most likely you were very hands-on as an IC, and being deeply involved in all of the details made you successful.
That changes as a leader. Not only will you not have the time to be deeply involved at all steps of the process, you should not be involved because it will often derail the team.
This is another example of leaders unintentionally causing harm, when they think they are helping, staying informed, and being appropriately involved. You know that style of management called “management by walking around”? It is often recommended to new managers to help them stay in touch with their team, communicate often, and get the pulse of the organization. It is also incredibly disruptive.
I did this briefly when I was promoted into leadership. I thought that my presence in a meeting might be useful, and that it would help me stay better informed about everything my team was doing. I soon realized that it was counterproductive. When I would enter a meeting room, it would fall silent. I would say, “No, no. Ignore me and continue.” But, we all know how well that works.
Remember when the principal would drop into a classroom to observe the teacher? How did the class react? How did the teacher behave? Things never returned to normal.
The same thing happens when a leader gets involved at the wrong time. When a working team is trying to actually, you know, work, having the boss show up throws a wrench in the works. Decisions that should be made by the team leader are suddenly deferred to you. When questions come up, the eyes in the room go to you. The process slows down and becomes awkward.
A humane leader understands when to get involved in projects. You simply cannot, and should not, see all projects at all phases. There is a time and a place for your input and feedback, but that requires that you trust your team during all of the other phases.
7. Delegate and trust
That brings us to the final step, which is probably the most important for a humane leader who wants to empower the organization. You must delegate appropriate responsibility and authority to your team. You must trust that they can do the work required to be successful, and that they will involve you at the right times.
Yes, this probably means that some projects will fail. It’s a learning experience that is necessary for your team to grow. You can’t always be the safety net, and you shouldn’t be. Being an effective, humane leader requires knowing when to trust the team and when it is ok to fail. It also requires knowing when failure comes with too high of a cost. There are times that you want to be the guardrails for the highest-priority projects (remember steps 3 and 4?).
Some of the best bosses in the history of my career were those who gave me room to grow, both as individual contributor and a leader. They knew that I needed to be seen as the leader, decision maker, and authority figure with my team, so they wouldn’t pop into my meetings and disrupt the flow. But, they also knew when I needed guidance and advice to improve.
When you are given trust, you are more likely to return that trust. You are also more likely to trust your own team. It is a virtuous cycle that creates a much healthier organization that is effective at developing and growing talent. It also helps you retain great people who stick around because they are challenged, fulfilled, and truly developing their careers with you.
Being a better leader
There are enough bad bosses in this world. This is your chance to be one of the good ones. I know that you have a million and one other responsibilities at work. But, being a humane leader and taking care of your team is what will make success possible, both for the company and for yourself. There is no such thing as a great leader without a great team. They will be the ones who make everything possible.
Are you ready to become a great leader? I provide one-on-one career consulting for a limited number of clients. Let’s talk to see if I can help you with transforming your own career.