Why Effective Leaders Focus on People over Output

The Jennifer Nash Newsletter

If you take no other lessons away from my content, know this: being people-oriented is being results-oriented! The key to driving performance is seeing others and making them feel seen.

Write it in red, bold it, and underline it. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

Just kidding—I’ve got way more to say on this (some of which will be in an actual TED Talk. Stay tuned for details down the road!).

Why is this a topic that needs to be shared in talks? Alan Mulally, the former president and CEO of Ford and Boeing, perfectly summed it up in the foreword he contributed to my upcoming book, Be Human, Lead Human: How to Connect People and Performance.

“Putting people at the core of leadership seems fundamental,” Alan said. “But in my experience … it’s precisely the idea of putting humans first that leaders most often overlook.”

Outdated leadership models have taught so many leaders to obsess over bottom lines and evaluate employees solely on their output. But this method doesn’t work. It’s only a recipe for burnout, low engagement, and high turnover.

So what does work? That’s what I’m going to share today. A few weeks ago, I shared the portrait of an average leader produced by the status quo: someone who moves up the ladder because they’re great at producing deliverables, but lacks the relational skills to be an effective leader of other humans producing those deliverables. Now let’s look at some outstanding leaders and talk about what makes them outstanding.

The Paper Plate

Alan Mulally comes up in my content frequently. I’m not doing it to name-drop. I just can’t talk about great Human Leaders without talking about the spark that ignited it all. Be Human, Lead Human and my Human Leadership operating model wouldn’t be the same without Alan’s influence.

It all started with a paper plate. 

As part of an employee appreciation event, I decorated a paper plate to make a thank-you card for the CEO. Delivering the plate to Alan was more difficult than it should have been. Some leaders above me didn’t want to allow delivery of my card to their boss.

Of course, this didn’t stop me from taking my token of gratitude to Alan’s office myself. And good thing it didn’t—he loved it so much, he left me a voicemail telling me so. His action demonstrated that despite my location on the organizational chart, I mattered. 

Alan has a special place in my heart because he was the first leader who ever made me feel seen and valued in the workplace. 

Alan taught me that a great leader sees you as a multifaceted human being. He consistently demonstrated that value during every interaction—and it showed in the shifting company culture and improved performance during his time there.

That lesson is the foundation for Human Leadership. 

Can you think of a time when a leader made you feel seen? If so, how did that impact your work? How about your engagement level? If not, how does this knowledge make you feel? What would you do differently from the leaders who failed to see you and helped you feel seen?

The Hairdresser’s Haircut

Another outstanding leader I want to highlight is one whom I’ve never met. Despite this, his actions left a deep impression on me and many others.

I cried when I watched this viral video of Brazilian hairdresser Danillo Mendonça shaving the head of a woman with hair that’s clearly been damaged by cancer treatment. In the video, the woman is crying, and Danillo demonstrates amazing people skills for the entire interaction. He listens to her, pauses occasionally to let her collect herself, and comforts her with gentle touches. 

And then he goes even further to make her feel seen. After a heartfelt embrace, Danillo starts shaving his own head.

The woman in the chair is shocked and clearly moved by his action—as are the thousands of people who have watched and shared the video on Instagram, LinkedIn, and various news sites.

Think about the implications of this gesture. For obvious reasons, a hairdresser is expected to have good-looking, healthy hair. It’s essential for getting new clients to trust them. Imagine how shaving all his hair off could impact Danillo’s business. But he did it anyway, to show this client that he sees her and what she’s going through. His action showed her that she is not alone and someone cares about what this experience is costing her. It’s a beautiful moment of connection to witness.

And while Danillo wasn’t the one recording the interaction, clearly someone decided the footage was worth posting on social media. I’m willing to bet this video has made plenty of people interested in booking him for their next hair appointment. Chances are it’s also helped at least one person rethink how they show up at work, lean in, and help others feel they matter. A win-win for everyone.

Saving the Dates

The next outstanding leader I want to tell you about is Tricia, a hard-working New York Life agent and financial advisor who has dedicated her career to helping people protect what matters most to them.

Tricia is known for helping people feel they matter.

Perhaps the best example of this is the story of how she turned the bridal shop where she bought her dream wedding gown into the most successful bridal store in Michigan—during a time when people had lost trust in bridal shops!

Tricia spent some time working at the bridal salon after negotiating to work off the deficit for a dress that was out of her budget. She did so well at the job that soon after her honeymoon, the store owner who wanted to retire offered to sell her the business. She and her new husband accepted.

During Tricia’s first year as the new owner, a huge scandal happened with another Michigan bridal shop, Boulevard Bridal. The store unexpectedly went out of business, stranding hundreds of brides who had paid large deposits on special order gowns sold exclusively through Boulevard Bridal without dresses for their wedding.

As a recent bride herself, Tricia understood the brides’ heartbreak. She wanted to help, so she called the dress manufacturer—Bridal Originals—and negotiated to pay for and take delivery of the gowns in Boulevard Bridal’s place. She then arranged to deliver brides their dresses, asking them to only pay their outstanding balance and offering to make alterations as needed.

It was a chaotic process with a crazy amount of work, but with the help of Bridal Originals, Tricia pulled it off. She and her team became the heroes for distressed brides following the Boulevard Bridal scandal. She made sure each bride got the dress of her dreams and felt beautiful in it, no matter what it took. 

As a result, Tricia’s business thrived. Within a year, she doubled operations and moved into a larger space. Her shop went from one of the smallest stores in the area to one of the top ten bridal salons in metro Detroit.

The Common Denominator

Alan, Danillo, and Tricia are three different people who work in three completely different industries. But you might have noticed all of their stories have a couple things in common. First, they’re all exceptional at what they do. And the reason for that is also the same—the dominant trait that makes them outstanding Human Leaders: empathy.

Alan showed empathy in his response to my paper plate card. Danillo showed empathy in his act of solidarity with the woman battling cancer. Tricia showed empathy by caring about the brides’ experiences more than their dollars.

And every single one of their respective businesses thrived as a direct result of their empathetic approach. They are Human Leaders proving that treating employees and clients alike as human first is the best way to drive long-term, sustainable high performance. It’s not the products or services that create value for a business; it’s the people working in it. That’s why being people-oriented is being results-oriented!

Are you ready to radically disrupt your leadership paradigm to become people-oriented and drive performance? Sign up for updates on Be Human, Lead Human, where I teach you everything you need to know to become a great Human Leader. You can get the first chapters for free right now before the book launches in May!

I have lots of other great stories and principles and practices of Human Leaders to share. Don’t miss out! Subscribe to this bi-weekly newsletter.

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