The Humanity of Leadership

by Sharlyn Lauby on October 1, 2009

(Editor’s Note: In our on-going discussion about the qualities of Leadership, Jennifer V. Miller suggested that we consider more than just likability.  My thanks to Jennifer for writing this guest post and adding to the leadership dialogue.)

In the workplace we need to be mindful of the words we use; words can uplift, sooth and encourage.  Similarly, they can deflate, irritate and damage the spirit.  Mary Jo Asmus and Art Petty posted a collaborative essay on their respective blogs on the importance of the words leaders speak. This led me to consider the words we use to describe important workplace concepts such as leadership.

So when Sharlyn posed the question: “Is being ‘likable’ a key leadership competency?” I felt compelled to chime in.   I replied:

I, too, have followed this notion through the blogosphere over the past few weeks. As a leadership competency, there are many words I’d choose above “kindness”. There’s a book called “Leading with Kindness” that seems to be prompting some of the buzz. I haven’t read the book; perhaps it’s fantastic and filled with amazing insights. It just seems to me that the word “kindness” was put on the front cover to get people to crack open the book.

Attributes that are relevant are things like compassion, empathy and emotional resilience. These are key leadership competencies that are in the “touchy feely” realm, yet are true differentiators in the leadership skill set. I’d put those in front of anything that connotes “niceness” or “kindness”.

There are many leadership competency models out there, ranging in size from 6 global competencies to 67 sub-level competencies.  When I wrote this reply, I was thinking of attributes/competencies that had a similar “people-skills” theme to them, but weren’t exactly based on niceness.  To me, “niceness” in particular has a certain frailty to it.  Being “nice” is fine when we’re all in Happy Land, but I’m not sure it serves well when the going gets tough. Here’s why I think the following leadership traits have better staying power.

Empathy and Compassion. Empathy is about being able to see someone else’s perspective and compassion is about wanting to do something about another’s situation. These two traits go hand-in-hand for leaders needing to help an employee through a trying situation.  A leader who is being “kind” may shy away from pointing out difficult-to-discuss aspects of the situation, thinking he/she is somehow protecting the employee.  In my mind, a skilled leader can be empathetic and compassionate, yet still leave the responsibility where it belongs—with the employee.

Emotional Resilience.  Let’s face it, being a leader is tough in the best of economic times and can be downright rotten in a tough business climate.  It takes emotional resilience to have those crucial conversations with employees—to hear about the challenges going on in their home life, to see them struggle with conflicts with fellow employees, or to yet again do a reduction-in-force meeting with a valued employee.  Being resilient means being able to regroup after a set-back— to refocus on the most important goals for one’s self and one’s team. Leaders who can listen with empathy and compassion, yet avoid taking on their direct reports’ emotional energy are the ones who will avoid burnout.

Like Sharlyn, I don’t advocate for evilness in a leader.  In fact, I advocate for leadership that’s humane—defined as “the quality of possessing compassion or consideration for others.”

The more humane a leader seems, the more approachable employees will perceive him/her to be.  And when employees are comfortable engaging their leader, that sets up a perfect environment for the leader to demonstrate those “people skills” chops.

Jennifer V. Miller is thoroughly enjoying her newcomer status as blogger on all things related to the “people equation”.  A former HR generalist, training practitioner and training manager, she now consults with clients to build leadership development programs at SkillSource of Western Michigan. Jennifer’s blog is

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