10 Guiding Principles of Human Leadership


The difference between an average leader and an outstanding one is deceptively simple. The secret to driving exceptional performance is being a human leader.

Human Leadership is the way of the future because it places the human element of business at the forefront—where it should have been the entire time—instead of focusing on performance, projects, or profit. Human Leaders support the people doing the work that brings in revenue. This in turn supports the customers, the organization, and the leaders themselves. Everyone thrives under Human Leadership.

A leader’s position is unique because it is both a directive and a supportive role. Leaders are directive because they determine direction through vision and hold their teams accountable for implementation. But more importantly, they’re supportive because it’s the leader’s job to ensure everyone has what they need to succeed. That’s why good human and relational skills are critical to leading well.

Leaders create value by proactively leading themselves, their team, and the business to drive profitable growth for all stakeholders. They create culture through connecting people with their work and with each other so that every role is more than just a job. 

Today, I want to discuss 10 principles that effective Human Leaders believe and practice to drive outstanding performance.

1. People are the most important value creators in organizations.

I’ve said it before, but it always bears repeating. The human element is the most important aspect of any organization. Goods or services don’t magically appear without people to make it happen.

Human Leaders recognize this truth and use it to create value for all stakeholders. They know that when you take care of your people, your people will take care of the work. Around that strong foundation, everything else falls into place.

2. Organizations must be places where people come to grow, not just work.

Because Human Leaders recognize the value of people, they prioritize helping people grow and evolve on both personal and professional dimensions. This means creating a workplace culture that offers employee-directed development opportunities and making the work they do about more than producing deliverables.

Research shows shifting the workplace to a growth environment positively affects engagement, well-being, and relationships. Team members become more skilled, produce better quality work, and are happier in their roles.

The key to success, then, is to shape work roles around people, not the other way around. Craft work around more than what needs to get done. Use it as a tool to spark and grow your team members’ internal flames. Let people’s interests, strengths, and purpose inform job crafting and design.

Which leads me to the next principle:

3. Personal identity shapes professional persona.

Human Leaders know there is no such thing as separating your “personal” self from your “professional” self. Sure, someone might dress differently in and outside the workplace, but their personality and interests don’t change when they walk through the office door—and they shouldn’t.

The idea that there is one persona that leaders should project is old-fashioned and useless. Leading with a “chief problem-solver” identity doesn’t benefit anyone. This is especially true if that persona doesn’t align with your true personality. 

Who you are as a person influences who you are as a leader. In other words, your leadership is influenced by:

  • The beliefs you hold.
  • The actions you take.
  • The behaviors you demonstrate.
  • The values that guide your decision-making.
  • Your personality.
  • Your energy source.
  • Your empathy (or lack thereof).

Every one of these aspects translates one for one into who you are and how you show up as a leader. Just as who your team members are in these aspects influences how they show up as employees. That’s the whole reason jobs suit different people. 

4. We must be technically proficient in the human element, not just functional areas.

Human Leaders understand that it takes more than technical skills in a functional area to successfully manage a team. A leader lacking good social skills isn’t going to get far with their team members, even if they previously excelled in the exact same role as the people they’re now leading.

Being technically proficient in the human element means understanding people—as human beings, not just employees. Human Leaders get to know each member of their team so that they can understand them enough to answer these fundamental questions:

  • What do they struggle with?
  • What’s important to them?
  • Who are they at their core?
  • Which values guide their decision making? 
  • What motivates them? 
  • What do they need to do their best work?
  • How do they want to learn and grow while at work? 
  • What is their why?

This is why emotional intelligence and good social skills are necessary qualifications for leadership roles. They’re the key to better connecting with the people whom it’s your job to lead. This is critical to driving performance and engagement.

5. To lead others, lead yourself first.

If you can’t lead yourself, no one will follow, listen to, or respect you. Human Leaders practice reflection to build a relationship with themselves—a key foundation to building human and relational skills to connect with others.

Studies suggest leaders who make time to reflect perform 23% higher than those who don’t. Reflection helps clarify your values, beliefs, and purpose. This empowers you to better understand your actions and make informed, intentional decisions about your behavior going forward.

Effective leadership involves crafting vision, using intuition, and adaptability. All of these require being in tune with and leading yourself well. Leading yourself first helps you discover your authentic leader signature.

6. Leaders lead people and hearts, not projects and tasks.

It’s common for leaders to earn a promotion as a reward for delivering great task-based work. But as I said above, you need more than the ability to complete tasks to lead. You can’t lead humans the way you lead projects.

Humans require motivation and inspiration to perform well. No amount of “hard skills” is going to help you achieve this. Human Leaders understand that while they can’t control others’ thoughts and emotions, they can elicit motivation and inspiration through their actions and behaviors.

Inspiring internal motivation in employees increases retention and raises performance and engagement.

7. Relationships power connection.

In a people-first operating model, the quality of people’s relationships determines work quality, employee experience and engagement, and perceptions of leadership.

Notice how everything in this list so far has relied on human and relational skills to connect with people? That’s because the connections are where the magic happens! 

People who know they’re valued and being treated as such are free to explore, take risks, and stretch farther than they ever thought possible. All of this creates a positive reinforcing loop that elevates self-efficacy, self-confidence, and organizational performance.

That’s why Human Leaders prioritize connection through relationships.

8. Give trust first to get trust.

Human Leaders reject the notion that people have to earn trust before you can trust them. I know how that sentence sounds, but hear me out. For what exactly do people have to earn trust in the workplace? It’s not to do their job, since you’re choosing to trust them to do that the day they’re hired –right?. 

And yet, somehow we still expect people to “prove themselves” through multiple interactions over time before we grant them trust. This delays relationship-building and connection. It’s counterintuitive.

Human Leaders understand that teams connect faster and more deeply when there’s no secret threshold a person must meet before they’re worthy of trust. So there’s no reason to withhold it.

It’s a leader’s job to build a relationship with everyone on their team, so naturally, it’s important to develop trust with them. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not on employees to earn a leader’s trust, but rather on leaders to earn employee trust. The best way to do that: give trust first.

9. Leading is a partnership.

I spoke earlier about the dual nature of leadership roles. Being a leader means being both directive and supportive. Human Leaders understand that this dynamic makes leading an act of powerful partnership, not powership.

Human Leaders lead through coaching, collaborating, and connecting people. They drive engagement through honoring universal human needs rather than dictating how work should be done. They create value for all by listening, participating, and facilitating. They partner with team members to drive outcomes rather than distancing themselves through title, organizational hierarchy, or processes.

10. People want to be seen, heard, understood, appreciated, inspired, connected and feel they matter.

Human Leaders understand these basic desires are fundamental human needs. And as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs illustrates, we must meet certain needs before we can function beyond trying to survive. So, if a leader wants a high-performing team, they must meet these needs for each team member.

The needs to be and feel heard, understood, mattered, appreciated, inspired, seen, and relationally connected are just as important as those traditionally listed in the famous pyramid. Mapping these specific needs according to Maslow’s expanded hierarchy model would look like this:

Maslow’s Expanded Hierarchy adapted by Dr. Jennifer Nash

Typically, financial security falls under safety needs. Notice how the needs listed in principle #10 land in categories other than safety? This is a good visual to demonstrate why money alone is not enough to make work worthwhile.

While recent studies show that increased income does improve happiness levels up to a point, researchers found that money’s effect pales in comparison to the happiness brought on by relationships, hobbies, and meaningful work.

Once people earn enough to meet their basic needs, work and life satisfaction become far more dependent on purpose, vision, and impact. Human Leaders understand this, which is why they prioritize seeing, hearing, understanding, appreciating, and inspiring their employees. They know this is what ultimately drives engagement and retains valuable team members.

Don’t let the long list of needs intimidate you. There is a lot of overlap in the behaviors that meet the needs of this principle. That’s what I created the Human Leadership operating model for!

Everything you need to know to better see, hear, understand, appreciate, inspire and connect with people is in my book, Be Human, Lead Human: How to Connect People and Performance. All of this is key to helping people know and feel that they matter.

Want to assess your skills in helping others meet these needs through their work? Take the complimentary Human Leader Index™ to get a personalized report. I created this assessment to help you measure your current abilities and create a strategic development plan to elevate your leadership.

I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders throughout my career. I’ve spent years researching what makes outstanding leaders stand out from the pack. I’ve got a goldmine of information on great leadership to share. Don’t miss out! Subscribe to my LinkedIn newsletter and visit my bi-weekly blog for content on everything you could want to know about exceptional human leadership.

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