Four Practices to be a More Human-Centered Leader

April 24, 2022  • Kalissa Hendrickson, Philip Javellana & Dave Rosenzweig

Its no question that the pandemic disrupted workplaces around the world. It also made one thing abundantly clear: organizations that do not acknowledge the humanity of their employees will neither retain nor unleash their potential. Workers are recalibrating their lives, taking on jobs that align with their values and allow them to show up as their full selves. Organizations must recalibrate as well by becoming human-centered in both approach and practice. And human-centered organizations require human-centered leaders.

Here are four guiding principles we employ in our work to become more human-centered leaders.

1. Engage in practices that promote self-awareness

Self-awareness is key to making good decisions. A self-aware leader is a more humane leader. Yet too often we stay on auto-pilot, allowing the daily grind of work and family obligations to govern our decisions and actions and avoiding the critical work of self-examination. The most effective way to get off the hamster wheel of mindless task completion is to ensure you are prioritizing your core values through self-examination.

There are many solo strategies you can employ to better understand yourself and your core values, including journaling and private study. However, we believe that intentional self-examination is most effective when done in the company of others. Speaking with colleagues, partners, family members, trusted friends, or faith-based groups about what they value and why will allow you to rediscover or reinforce your own values. In our Leadership Seminars we take this type of group dialogue one step further by incorporating philosophy, literature, poetry, and art into the conversation, bringing a breadth of positions and voices into the discussion. Regardless of how you engage in self-examination, rest assured that it will translate into better awareness of your team and their needs.

Key questions for you and your team: How can I intentionally check in with myself on a regular basis? What are my driving principles? What do I value and how are those values expressed in my work and leadership decisions?

2. Make time for personal refreshment

The human experience is not made up of work alone, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that working harder is the only answer to becoming a better leader. Take the time to step away from your desk, meetings, and Zoom calls to do something simply for the sake of fun and personal enjoyment. Intentional breaks will refresh the creative part of your brain that is needed to open your mind and problem solve.

Daily practices like meditation or exercise can help you reset when you are feeling overwhelmed. Even doing something as simple as listening to a piece of music or looking at artwork can refresh the soul. We believe in completely removing yourself from your daily environment and immersing yourself in an experience that brings you awe, delight, or wonder. Being out in nature—anything from a thirty-minute break on a bench in your neighborhood park to spending an entire afternoon on a walk in the wilderness—allows you to momentarily shut off the part of your brain that is stuck in work mode. Humans are wired to recognize the beauty of art and the freedom of nature. Work with that need, not against it.

Key questions for you and your team: What am I doing when I feel the most refreshed and relaxed? When was the last time I felt inspired? How can I incorporate more music, art, and nature into my personal and professional life?

One of the reasons we hold our programs in Colorado is to experience that sense of wonder, awe, and delight only nature can bring. [Photo credit: Dan Bayer]

3. Prioritize alignment over agreement

Agreement is not necessary when alignment is prioritized. Being a leader would be easy if everyone in the workplace thought exactly the same way, but humans are complicated entities. Striving for universal agreement is a fool’s errand. Rather than dictating or forcing people into agreement, strive to seek points of alignment that allow everyone to feel recognized.

The importance of alignment is even more pressing in diverse workplaces. In order to find alignment with those who have different lived experiences from your own, you need to engage in a process of understanding their perspectives from a place of openness and curiosity. Seek out opportunities to learn about those you work with, not just their hobbies and children’s names, but what they value and how they think about the world. Ask questions that help you understand what drives them, and extend them the courtesy of recognizing their point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. When you enter into situations seeking to find where values align, rather than seeking to “win” someone over, you open up space for everyone to bring their full selves to work.

Key questions for you and your team: What do I believe and why? What do those around me believe? Where do we align?

4. Create spaces where everyone can be brave

Instead of seeking spaces where you feel comfort, challenge yourself to engage in spaces where you can be brave. It is human to seek safety and security, but too much safety means we might miss opportunities to learn and grow. The next step after creating “safe spaces” is to create “brave spaces”rooted in trust and respect in which everyone can participate.

The essential element in a brave space is trust—the trust you extend to others and the trust you expect from them in return. If you do not make the effort to trust those you work with, you will always seek the unproductive comfort of people who think the same way you do. Creating these spaces is hard. You may need to call in outside help to facilitate them, but doing so pays dividends. Working in a space where trust is extended allows differences to become generative. In such spaces ideas can be tested, honed, and ultimately made better. Brave spaces harness the power of productive tension, allowing you and those you work with to show up as fully-realized individuals.

Key questions for you and your team: Am I brave or safe at work? When do I feel uncomfortable and why? How can I create a culture that enhances trust and allows all of us to lean into difficult conversations?

Next Steps

Moving towards more human-centered leadership is difficult; it requires you understand those around you as people, not just pieces on a chessboard. This process is not about the destination, it is a mindset you must cultivate and continually practice. But, like any practice, it does become easier with time. While the last few years have been disruptive, the bright spot is that many workers are in search of meaning and fulfillment. Leaders and organizations should use this shared inflection point to do the same and create environments where all can flourish.

Stay in the loop for opportunities to develop your leadership and sign up for email alerts from the Aspen Institute’s Executive Leadership Seminar team.

Kalissa Hendrickson is the director of the Institute’s Executive Leadership Seminars department.

Philip Javellana and David Rosenzweig are members of the Aspen Institute’s Leadership Programs Division.