What is human-centered leadership?

February 25th, 2022

The definition of human-centered leadership is fairly simple: leadership that puts people first. But what does this look like on a daily basis? Being human-centered shapes our communication style, our mindset, and our sense of trust. It changes how we approach problems and think about advancement. It also calls on us to shift priorities and make employee wellbeing a strategic imperative, particularly in the face of employee burnout and the stressors of hybrid work.

The term “human-centered leadership” may seem redundant, as the whole idea of leading is to deal with people. But "traditional" leadership is all about performance, profitability, deadlines, projects, status reports, and results. Human-centered leadership, on the other hand, puts people first and makes success happen with people, not despite them. Ultimately, this leadership style acknowledges that fostering employee wellbeing can also lead to better business outcomes.

But what does a human-centered culture look like?

Driving a human-centered culture

One way to thing about employee wellbeing as it relates to creating a human-centered employee culture is to think about energy.

Ashira Gobrin, CPO of Wave Financial, says there are four types of energy that flow through an organization: physical, emotional, intellectual, and finally, the energy that comes from being connected to a higher purpose.

Nurturing these different levels of energy is key, whether your team is remote, in-person, or hybrid. "There's a very tight connection between energy and culture," Ashira says. Once the more fundamental types of energy are nourished––that is, our teams are both physically and emotionally healthy––organizations can focus on the other two. Any efforts to encourage teams to work toward a higher purpose without first addressing their basic needs simply won't be effective. But an organization that considers all four facets will find themselves with an energizing culture and thriving employees.

The three keys to human-centered leadership

Human-centered leaders create nurturing work environments that leave room for learning, understanding, and our needs as human beings. Here are the three central tenets of the emerging leadership style.

  1. Empathy: Human-centered leaders listen to others’ perspectives, account for their own bias and privilege, and reflect on the life circumstances of their employees. They express care and concern and take concrete actions that improve the employee experience. These leaders understand when life gets in the way of work and that employees do better when they have adequate rest and feel respected.

  2. Vulnerability: Leaders who model vulnerability create an environment of psychological safety and mutual trust. Vulnerability in the workplace creates connection and invites employees to bring their authentic selves to work. Leaders model vulnerability when they admit when they’re wrong, regularly solicit feedback, and take time to self-reflect. They choose transparency over control, relationships over hierarchies, and wellbeing over productivity.

  3. Humility: Human-centered leaders value humility and always assume there is more to learn. They bring a growth mindset to their work, focusing more on learning than on looking smart or being right. They prioritize mentoring, coaching, and learning for themselves and their teams, and encourage collaboration and open-mindedness over competition and routine. They take time to appreciate employees’ progress and are excited when they can help employees thrive.

Leaders who put these tenets into practice will find it much easier to sustain a human-centered culture. Not only that, they'll be consistently modeling human-centered leadership for other leaders and managers in the organization, helping to motivate others to adopt this more open-minded, trusting, and inclusive style.

Human-centered leadership: what's next?

Human-centered leadership is at the heart of many changes happening in our profession. We're excited to see where this shift goes next, as leaders across all kinds of organizations begin to realize that supporting their people and nurturing a healthy culture isn't a distraction from business goals––in fact, it's deeply strategic.

To learn more about human-centered leadership, check out our online HR course Human-Centered Leadership. Built with Josh Bersin's latest research on leadership, this course examines the emergence of human-centered leadership, how to drive a human-centered culture, and why this leadership style will imapact the way we lead and manage our people for years to come.