The Human Leader

Make no bones about it, I have made many mistakes as a leader, and I probably learned more from my mistakes than my success. There has been one common factor in my success as a leader, The Human Leader Factor. You are probably wondering what this means.

There is an age-old saying when someone makes a mistake, “I’m only human.” This is true, and as humans, we are destined to make mistakes. There has only ever been one perfect human, and I think we all know who I am referencing hint, his name starts with a J. Settle down; I’m not going to go down a religious rabbit hole today. I am pointing out it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s the human thing to do. The problem is not making a mistake; it is not owning your mistake. Being a human leader doesn’t just mean owning your mistakes but also acknowledging your weakness and showing your more human side. Again, some of you are still probably wondering what this means in practice.

I have worn many faces as a leader: yeller, lead by example, suck it up, proud, my s*it doesn’t stink, know it all, and a few others. Of all my leader faces, the one that garnered the best results was my Human Leader face. I have done a few things that humanized me as a leader, and I will list a few of my favorites.  I think they will help every leader be a more emotionally intelligent and effective leader.

Acknowledge I do not have all of the answers. Not having all of the answers has happened a few times in my career, but none more prevalent than my time as a Company First Sergeant. For those who do not know, a Company First Sergeant is the senior enlisted leader for an Army Company, and a Company consists of about 130 people. My Company consisted of people with skills for which I had received no formal training. I could have tried to fake the funk and relied on my strengths, but I did not. I was upfront with the Company about my lack of knowledge, and I positioned myself to learn. While I was learning, I focused on how I could best support them at the organizational level. I empowered and trusted them to make the right training decisions and asked them what they needed from me. How can I use my influence to ensure we are meeting the needs of their training? If you are the leader in this situation, focus on what you can do, not what you can not do.

Take care of your people. As leaders, we can work long hours and appear as robots or machines with no life outside of work. For the last ten years, I left my house at 0430am and often did not leave work to return until 1800 (6 pm) or later. Just because I was at work did not mean I needed everyone else to be, and I told them that. Sometimes our people feel obligated to work the hours we do as leaders, and bad leaders make everyone suffer with them. Set your expectations up front; when you are done for the day, go home. This does not mean leaders should not have checks and balances, but again, empower your people to make decisions, and they will usually make the correct one.

Let your team see what you are like outside of work while you are at work. I know that doesn’t sound very clear. I would intentionally have my wife and kids come to the office from time to time. I would walk around the Company with my kids and let them talk with people. It was a great way to show I was more than a Company First Sergeant, but a husband and father as well. I may have been the senior person in the office, but when they saw my four-year-old little girl and how she had me wrapped around her finger, it humanized me. Here is something I have told all of my people over the years. Hopefully, your wife will be your wife for the rest of your life, but your kids will definitely always be your kids, no matter the circumstance. It is okay to miss a work event now and again to go to the softball game or dance recital. I did practice what I preached. I did not stay until 1800 every day. Sometimes, I would walk out of the office at 1600 to be a husband and father.

Be quick to praise and slow to blame. In the military, we are good at knee-jerk reactions. Someone is late to work, so now the entire Company pays. Joe gets a driving under the influence charge, so now the whole Company comes to work at 0300. We have all been there—the leaders who fly off the handle at the first sign of trouble, guilty. Take your time to analyze the situation, get outside perspective, and REALLY look at the consequences of the knee-jerk reaction before you act. Praise, I am bad at this, I admit, but do it and do it often. Let your people know they are valuable and acknowledge a job well done.

Laugh often. Military resiliency training can be a joke, but I took one thing away from it for my work and personal life. Hunt the good stuff. As a leader, you are the tone-setter for your people. Suppose you are an unapproachable, grouchy SOB who never sees the good in anything. Morale will take a nosedive, and feedback loops will close. The result will be a more grouchy SOB, and your time as a leader will end, or your health may decline, or your best people will leave. Nothing good comes of it. So, laugh, hunt the good stuff, and make the best out of the situation, and your people will perform better.

Leaders must model the behavior they want to see. This may be the most critical leader trait. To model the behavior you want to see, you have to gain an intimate knowledge of yourself. You have to understand emotional intelligence. Don’t run away because of the word emotional. It is okay if you tap into a little bit of emotion now and again to gain a better self-understanding. I promise it’s okay, and I won’t tell anyone.

Now, go be a Human Leader. It is not easy, and you will never achieve perfection. I know I have not, but it is the pursuit of perfection and the acknowledgment that we can not do it alone that make us human.