How to be a humane leader

Real leaders are real people.

Lead humanely

During Ragan’s recent Communications Leadership Council retreat, my colleague, Mel Shahbazian, and I asked an elite group of communications and executives to tell us what ”humane leadership” meant to them. What came back to us were traits like empathy, humility, compassion, emotionally intelligent, authenticity, vulnerability, openness, approachability, high integrity, supportive, caring, transparent, respectful, resilient, relatable and kind. They nailed it!



We return frequently to this concept in our coaching and facilitation work because we believe humane leaders are the ones who will help lead organizations most successfully into the future. So how do organizations cultivate humane leaders, and what sets humane leaders apart from the rest?

Recognizing and rewarding humane leadership

In our experience working with hundreds of leaders, we have identified the characteristics and behaviors that separate the very best leaders from the rest.  While there are many different types of leadership that can foster success when you are in the presence of a human leader you can feel it.

Humane leaders not only ask, what does my company really stand for, they ask what do my people stand for, and what do I stand for? They stay grounded in those truths and find ways to bring them to life in all that the organization does.

This type of leader models what it is to be a human being in all its complexity and imperfection. Humane leaders know that progress, performance and success are team sports, and that there are many people who helped them achieve the success they have today.

We watched a fantastic example of humane leadership when one of our C-level clients opened a town hall meeting with a giant, blank timeline displayed on the wall. He had broken the phases of his career into themes. He proceeded to highlight groups of people, inserting their names into his career story.

He said things such as: “I remember when James joined and we had a terrible board meeting. He taught me the importance of being resilient and bouncing back from a tough situation with humility, rather than pride. Jane and her team with Tony, Angela and Sam represent the celebratory theme of my tenure. They taught me the importance of recognizing small wins along the way versus the ‘big wins’ once a year.”

He went on to highlight groups of people and write their names on the timeline. Then he had everyone come to the timeline and write their own memory under that theme. It was an interactive and collaborative experience that left the entire room moved and inspired.

Humane leadership in practice

Humane leaders masterfully manage their own personalities, practicing self-awareness with the mission to drive results by motivating and inspiring others. One silver lining of the COVID pandemic is that it humanized business more than ever before.

For example, a client and humane leader we know leaned into modeling thegood, the bad and the ugly of their own experiences in a new year’s communication to her team. Taking a page from the celebrity weekly “Stars, They’re Just Like Us” features, she sent out a very real and humorously humble note including holiday pictures and blurbs from her personal life as a frazzled parent to express that “we share common values and experiences” and to recognize that everyone has a life outside of work.

As you strive to become a more humane leader today, you can consciously start to:

  • Embrace and appreciate the gifts in every situation.
  • Quiet your inner voice that is competing with the other person’s voice and truly listen with the intent to get to the best outcome.
  • Use the “power of the pause” before you speak.
  • Apply the “grace lens” to everyone and every situation. (“Most people are trying their best and are inherently good.”)

Humane leadership is a collective experience and one that sees that all people are valuable. The humane leader can support the initiatives of their organization while never forgetting that it’s the people that set it apart. And when you put your people first, they will move mountains for you.

Mary Olson-Menzel is the founder and CEO of MVP Executive Development and co-founder of Spark Insight Coaching.


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