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Empathy in Humanistic Leadership

leadership transition Sep 21, 2023
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- By Sophie Pinkoski

“To lead others well, one must be able to lead oneself.”

So begins the definition Dr. Craig Nathanson attributes to his humanistic leadership model. Humanistic leadership shines a light on the wonderful potential within organizations to cultivate not just productivity, but also harmonious connections among team members. This inspiring approach recognizes that when leaders extend genuine, human-level support to each individual, remarkable transformations occur. Embracing this style of leadership requires a fulfilling journey of self-discovery and awareness.

Guiding a team towards unity and loyalty requires dedicated effort, a commitment to building trust, and fostering mutual respect.

Every team member is a universe of their own, driven by unique emotions and experiences that shape their needs, values, goals, and viewpoints.

Delving into the realm of these emotions beckons the development of your emotional intelligence – a powerful tool that not only deepens your understanding but also kindles empathy and compassion for your team.

Within this nurturing environment, a sanctuary of psychological safety emerges. It's a place where authenticity thrives and team members find solace in bringing their genuine selves to work. This extraordinary setting allows the opportunity to truly perceive the individuals around you, embracing their essence, and comprehending their aspirations and necessities.

The journey of humanistic leadership illuminates the path to genuine connections, positive growth, and a fulfilling work atmosphere.

By recognizing a team’s unique needs, you motivate them through a culture of respect, creativity, and innovation, infusing purpose and meaning into their work.

When leaders can successfully nurture meaning into your team’s endeavors, they can better see the value they bring to the organization as a whole.

This is what builds the basis for humanistic leadership. Here are some key focuses for leading empathetically:

Wellbeing –– Unlike many other leadership styles, humanistic leadership understands that individual wellbeing is central to maintaining efficiency and productivity. Keeping one's team not just satisfied, but happy in their work is the glue holding everything together.

When everyone’s mental health is prioritized, they can get the support they need through good times and bad.

This involves honoring any boundaries they might establish to enhance their work-life balance. Consider helping them manage their workload according to what they can handle. This will prevent them from burning out from work stress and allows them to put their energy and effort into doing their best work.  When they feel a strong sense of psychological safety to excel, their dedication to the organization and you as a leader naturally flourishes.

Potential –– People are always looking for new ways to challenge themselves. Many team members are keen to take on stimulating work that lets them improve their skills and learn new things. Humanistic leadership prioritizes development opportunities to foster professional and personal growth. Organizations should encompass more than just achieving results; it should embrace the cultivation of an environment focused on continuous learning, growth, and adaptability. This provides individuals with the platform to infuse their skills and passions into their roles with a renewed and engaging perspective.

By enabling them to embrace opportunities that genuinely push their boundaries, leaders equip them with the resources to unlock their full potential and evolve into their most exceptional selves.

Validation –– With empowerment comes validation. Treating each individual with empathy and compassion makes them feel seen and heard, like their contribution is meaningful and worthwhile. Furthermore, possessing the emotional intelligence to thoughtfully examine and manage one’s own emotional responses may be liberating to embrace vulnerability with a team.

Sharing emotions communicates to the team that they also have the space to authentically express their feelings, thoughts, and worries.

Through dedicated listening to their viewpoints, leaders can highlight the importance of their perspectives, fostering trust. This paves the way for in-depth dialogues stemming from different perspectives, fostering a culture of imaginative thinking, questioning norms, and ultimately, sparking innovation within a team.

Humanistic leadership is all about respecting, validating, and empowering each individual according to their personal needs. Supporting everyone on an individual level gives them purpose within the organization. When their needs are met and they feel seen and heard as human beings, everything else will more seamlessly fall into place.


Further Reading

 The Humanistic Leadership Model (HLM), Excelsior University Journal of Business and Technology.

 How to Kill Creativity. Harvard Business Review

Seven Transformations of Leadership. Harvard Business Review

How Do Transformational Leaders Inspire and Motivate Followers? Very Well Mind

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Random House.

Bray, J., Lee, J., Smith, L., & Yorks, L. (2000). Collaborative Inquiry in Practice: Action, Reflection and Making Meaning. (pp. 1–19) Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage Publications, Inc.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). “Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health”. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(3), 182-185.

Allen, T. D., French, K. A., Dumani, S., & Shockley, K. M. (2015). “Meta-analysis of Work-Family Conflict and Strain”. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 86, 157-171.

Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). “Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work”. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179-201.

Muff, K. (2009). “Developing globally responsible leaders in business schools”. Journal of Management Development, 32(5), 487–507.

Hayat, R., Suliman, A.M. (2013). Humanistic Leadership in Work Organizations. Integrity in Organizations. Humanism in Business Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Ferris, W. (Ed.) (2013). Encyclopedia of Management Theory. SAGE Publications, Ltd.

Fu, P., Kimakowitz, E., Lemanski, M., & Liu, L. (2020). “Humanistic Leadership in Different Cultures: Defining the Field by Pushing Boundaries”. Cross Cultural & Strategic Management. 27. 533-546.


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