Humanizing Leadership

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As we kick off a new year, we reflect on the nearly two years of ‘the new normal’ – living room spaces turning into workspaces and dining room tables becoming conference tables. Work colleagues and clients introducing their children and pets during zoom meetings. In the process, even though we may have been physically further apart, our work communities continue to draw closer together and we begin to see each other not just for our roles and titles, but as human beings.

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Through it all, we’ve tried to maintain a personal connection with our colleagues and teams. A recent study cited in Forbes asked 12,000 leaders in corporate America: Are you mindful of your employees’ and colleagues’ unique differences? 74 percent of those leaders said they are always or sometimes mindful of those differences. When asked their employees the same question, 80 percent said their leaders are rarely aware of those differences. That’s a big gap in how much employees believe their leaders recognize the humanity of their employees.

When leaders show up as humans, the more likely it is that the people they lead will show up as human themselves. We all wake up the same way—messy, complex, and imperfect—and by revealing our own humanity, others feel more comfortable in sharing their own vulnerabilities. Today, as some companies provide hybrid work environments and an increasing number of employees choose to leave their jobs, it’s never been more important to create an openness in the workplace. Leaders should approach their teams with this simple mantra from Oprah Winfrey, “I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters to me.”

Humanizing Your Approach To Leadership

Humanizing leadership is an approach that can help sustain this connectedness. It brings out the best in others, encourages collaboration, nurtures a fulfilling and productive workplace, and creates teams that deliver value and results. Here’s our take on five ways leaders can humanize their approach to leadership—along with a few examples on how to put them into practice.

  1. Act With Humility

It’s not hard to find leaders at the pinnacle of their professions who appear powered more by ego than by humility. They seem to crave the heat and light of their own spotlight. On the flip side, a leader with humble confidence shows up with a firm belief in their own ideas, the ability to set goals for their teams, and a willingness to take risks. But they also know how to remain approachable and relatable, and when to shine the light on others. Sharing ideas and goals with others and asking, “what do you think?” builds trust, more effective teams, and lasting relationships. Admitting mistakes makes room for personal growth, as well as growth for the teams they lead. Leaders with humility are unafraid of sharing the spotlight, and often lend their voices and their microphones to amplify the voices of those who may be unheard, such as junior colleagues, front-line workers, disgruntled customers, or members of racially and ethnically diverse populations.

  1. Relate With Empathy

Empathy is likely one of the most under-rated superpowers of leaders. Empathy is simply being able to ‘feel as if’ we understand what another individual or group may be feeling, particularly the groups who may be least represented. Nearly impossible to fake, empathy creates more authentic leadership. Empathetic leaders know when a moment requires dropping the ‘veil’ of the role and hierarchy and simply connecting with fellow humans.

Here’s one example of an empathic leader: During the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and resulting social unrest, one CEO spent time listening to an ethnically diverse group of employees. The employees shared their heartfelt and, in some cases, emotional stories while he listened and occasionally asked questions to deepen his understanding. He ended that conversation simply by saying an empathetic: “I see you.”

  1. Show Up With Courage

Courage is simply the ‘doing the right thing that needs to be done.’ The right thing can be challenging the status quo or engaging productively with discomfort. It can even take courage to be kinder than necessary. There’s a saying that says “courage doesn’t always roar.” Sometimes it’s the quiet voice at the end of the day that says, “I will try again tomorrow.” When a leader shows up with courage, it shows fellow colleagues and employees that they too can act courageously.

  1. Extend Grace

Imani Perry, author of Breathe: A Letter to My Sons calls grace simply, “The good thing that is within you regardless of what happens.” A human leader can extend grace both to themselves and to others—especially when the work environment includes a near constant volley of urgent tasks.

We never truly know what our colleagues are going through—leaders should be aware and respectful of this and choose a response with this in mind. Sometimes grace is also simply the reminder that almost everything will work again if it’s unplugged for a moment, including ourselves. Humble leaders know to extend grace quickly because they will likely need it in return.

  1. Practice Gratitude

Giving thanks is the surest and perhaps simplest way to keep a team inspired and motivated to keep delivering at their best. Send notes of gratitude to your teams regularly. Thank them for their focus and contributions, especially if it’s a heartfelt message sharing insight into your own experiences that make it personal.


Working from home during the pandemic has offered a chance to connect with work colleagues in more authentic ways as we shared a glimpse of our everyday lives. We are gaining a deeper understanding that at the end of the day, we are all human beings with hopes, dreams, and concerns, and recognizing our shared humanity helped us pull together, work through challenges, and accomplish unbelievable feats during a challenging time. Today, whether you lead a one-person office or an entire practice, work from home or plan a return to headquarters, perhaps now is the time to include more “human” leadership in our workplaces. The potential impact is far-reaching—humanizing your own leadership can help improve the human experience for colleagues, clients, and partners, and increase connectedness among our work communities.

Article by Amelia Dunlop, Chief Experience Officer, Deloitte Digital, and Jenifer Robertson, Executive Vice President and General Manager - Mobility, AT&T

About the Authors

Amelia Dunlop

Amelia Dunlop is the chief experience officer at Deloitte Digital and leader of the US Customer Strategy and Applied Design practice for Deloitte Consulting LLP. She helps companies develop winning strategies that combine innovation, creativity, and digital strategy. Amelia writes and speaks regularly about human experience, creativity, and customer strategy, and is the author of the bestselling book Elevating the Human Experience: Three Paths to Love and Worth at Work.

Jenifer Robertson

Jenifer Robertson is the Executive Vice President and General Manager of AT&T Mobility. Jenifer leads the team responsible for all of AT&T’s postpaid and prepaid businesses – providing nationwide wireless service and experiences to more than 100M customers. Her team is dedicated to serving customers first.