For a long time, we thought we needed to be blind to differences in order to be fair or equal. If someone embodied anything other than white, able-bodied heteronormativity, their differences were “accepted” and “tolerated,” but never fully seen, let alone welcomed. But there is a shift happening, albeit slowly, toward being seen in our full humanity.
The causes for this shift are numerous. We believe they include our country’s changing demographics. No longer minorities, people of color are claiming more political and organizing power and refusing to be kept invisible. Combine this with the de-stigmatization of therapy, normalizing emotional awareness, and growing understanding of trauma, and we open a space for voices to say loudly and with ever-widening reach, see me: trans, non-binary, differently-abled, neurodiverse, multi-racial, and more. It’s no longer a secret or shame to want your humanity acknowledged. It’s not yet always safe, but it’s become a desire we can no longer stifle.
At Leverage to Lead, we take particular interest in what these shifts mean in the workplace. These shifts in our cultural landscape and employee expectations mean today’s leaders are being asked to see their team, and in turn be seen themselves, as human—flaws, limitations, feelings, and all. But what does leadership look like in our full humanity? Read on for human practices and values we see in the most effective leaders.
Build Relationships Downward
Leaders have no doubt paid their dues in hours, energy, and resources. They’ve also succeeded by building relationships—but often only in one direction. Making connections upward is necessary to advancement, and leaders get good at it quickly. But too often, upon reaching the top, leaders don’t continue building relationships. Sometimes they think they simply don’t have to anymore. Or they come to expect others to flock to them.
After “making it,” too many leaders think their work is to maintain their position and power, instead of using it to give others upward mobility. The commonplace that it’s lonely at the top only holds true if you stop connecting.
Leaders, your people want and need to be seen by you, in the fullness of their humanity and identity. They are not just your associate or manager or executive. Not just another member of your team or a representative of your brand. They’re your people.
We know from scores of research that diversity is good for your organization’s bottom line. A truly diverse team that works within the values of equity and inclusion will outperform and out-innovate homogenous teams. But not without solid leadership that embraces and leverages difference.
Build Emotional Intelligence and Inner Agility
When you see and engage with people’s full selves, you’re going to encounter their emotions. Sometimes leaders fail to engage because they’ve compartmentalized their people, expecting them to show up as workers who don’t bring along any traces of their actual lives. But it’s all that lived experience that makes your employees human and uniquely insightful. It’s that diversity that brings innovation and creativity to your team. It’s what brings acquired diversity to your team.
Rather than refusing or simply neglecting to engage your people’s whole selves, build your own emotional intelligence so that you can meet them fully. When we see leaders who don’t want to or aren’t able to build this type of resilience, it’s often because they aren’t fully engaged with their own emotions. Leaders need inner agility–skills to name your emotions, examine them, identify what your emotions are triggered by, and be honest about how your emotions are affecting your behaviors. Developing emotional awareness, intelligence, and agility is a crucial requirement for leaders, helping them maintain emotional regulation, curiosity, and boundaries.
Build Action around Your People
When you see your people’s humanity, you build connection with them, and you will act on their behalf. You will learn about and celebrate their religious holidays. You will educate yourself on the history of their oppression in the U.S. You will create equitable and inclusive structures in your organization and push for changes in national policy on behalf of your people—like pulling your business out of the state of Georgia in protest of their restrictive voting legislation.
We hear the cynics saying these actions are the result of shaming, social pressure, and the fear of losing revenue. Maybe so. Maybe at first. But it’s also an acknowledgment that these marginalized human beings are their customers and their team members.
It’s seeing the effects of inequality on them and tying their brand to people’s wellbeing.
Build Readiness for Connection
Begin with who you are as a person and an organization. When you have clarity about who you are, you’ll know what you have to share with others and you can invite connection. A leader who knows themselves will do remarkable things like hire people with skill sets they don’t have. They will be open about their policies, accountability measures, and performance requirements. They will admit when they don’t know something and ask for help. They will not assume they have to have all the answers, which nearly always results in white supremacy values rising to the top.
Similarly, when an organization is clear about its values, you can see them running through every aspect—hiring, HR, product development, philanthropy, finance. When you know your values, you can set clear standards and hold people to them with transparency.
Build Humanity First
When we work with leaders, we help them get comfortable with their own humanity, beginning with their story. We ask them to reflect on who they are, how they grew up and were socialized, how they’ve been impacted by their family, neighborhood, education, travel, and work. We ask, what do you do well and what do you need help with? What are your limitations? A deeper self-understanding is what allows you to see and connect with others.
To be clear, being human and vulnerable to your team doesn’t involve crossing boundaries—you’re not being called to overshare or be inappropriate. Also, we’re not advocating that you insist on a deep connection with everyone you work with. Some, people of color in particular, are already asked to be extremely vulnerable at work and it would be unfair to demand even more if they’re not comfortable. For them, leading with your humanity matters all the more for their sense of safety and belonging.
If you or your organization want to talk more about leading with your humanity first, contact anyone on our team.