Truly Human Leadership: Tips for becoming a better leader

6 min read

By Bob Chapman, Chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, and #3 CEO in the World, according to Inc. Magazine. Bob will be speaking at the Made Extraordinary summit by SafetyCulture on the 27-28 October (full details below)

When I first took on the role of Chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller in 1975, what it meant to be a leader in business looked very different from today.

When I went to college, I took management classes. I got a management degree and got a job in management. What did I try to do? I tried to manage people. Eventually, I discovered that way of looking at business, leadership in business and that way of looking at people was wrong. Today, Barry-Wehmiller is a $3.5 Billion company with more than 12,000 people within our span of care. Along our journey, we discovered a better way to look at business and people. We call it Truly Human Leadership.

I believe business could be the most powerful force for good if it simply cared about the lives it touches. The next revolution in the future of work will not be an industrial revolution, it will be the Human Revolution. It is the revolution that will transform business and the world in a dramatic fashion. And it begins with Truly Human Leadership.

Here, are five easy steps to get started on the path to Truly Human Leadership.

Tip #1: Go beyond management. Learn to lead

“Who in your life likes to be managed?” I often pose this question when the words manager or management come up in conversation.

No one wants to be managed; not your spouse, your children or your friends. Yet in the workplace we have managers who manage, bosses who boss – all part of the broken language of business.

Human beings aren’t meant to be managed; they’re meant to be led – by leaders.

Parenting and leadership are identical. In my own life’s journey, I was trying to be a father of six kids and a decent husband. I was learning how to lead.

What’s parenting? The stewardship of these precious lives that come into our life through birth, adoption, or second marriage, which everybody takes seriously. What is leadership? the stewardship of these precious lives of people who walk in our building around the world who simply want to know that who they are and what they do matters. Management is about using other for my success. A profound difference from leadership.

We are self-destructing for economic gain because we have never learned that human dignity and economic gain can be in harmony. They’re not in disharmony. We have not taught people how to care. We’ve taught people how to use others for their success, which is a me-centric world as opposed to a we-centric world.

Tip #2: Empathetic listening goes a long way

As a leader, listening is the most important thing you can do. But I believe it transcends leadership. Listening is the most important thing we, as humans, can do for one another. It shows the person you are listening to that they matter. It honors their dignity. When done with the intent to not merely get the information you need but rather to meet the needs of the other person and hear how he or she is feeling, listening allows us to connect and better understand each other.

True empathetic listening, where one actually hears the other person’s words and feelings, is the kind of listening that builds empathy as it allows us to see things from others' perspectives. It’s the key to all meaningful relationships as it shows that you respect and care for the person you’re hearing.

My friend, Bill Ury, says that we are given two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen twice as much as we talk. How can we build trust and show respect and understand one another unless we know what the other person is thinking and feeling? The way we actualize caring is through empathetic listening. I wonder how our dialogue with one another could be improved, not only in our workplaces or our homes, but with everyone we encounter, if we were to approach every conversation in this way.

Tip #3: Recognize and celebrate your people

As a leader, how often do you take the opportunity to celebrate one of the lives in your care?

And why do you do it? To motivate them so they’ll be more productive? Or because they worked tirelessly and exceeded a goal? Do you do it because there’s a measurable ROI for your company when you consistently recognize your people?

It’s not about the carrot and the stick. If you simply use recognition as another “management” tactic, you’ll never experience its true value: knowing that you’ve touched the life of another person.

Many business leaders think that people should be grateful and happy simply because they have a job. Maybe they even have a well-paying job with good benefits. But just having a job and getting perks isn’t everything.

Every one of us, no matter what our job or where we live, simply want to know that who we are and what we do matters. As leaders in business, we have the awesome responsibility to let people know that they do. We have a responsibility to recognize the inherent dignity in our people and honor that, not break it.

When so many people go home each night not feeling valued, it is no surprise that we see so much conflict in families, our communities and in the world today.

Tip #4: Take a people-centric approach to business

We at Barry-Wehmiller believe that we can operate with people and performance in harmony, not one in sacrifice of the other. Doing so requires patience and investment, but it is critical to having a thriving business that builds enduring value over time.

Fundamentally, businesses don’t create value; people do. When we provide meaningful work in an environment where they feel safe, valued, and trusted, amazing things happen. We see it every day across all our companies, all over the world.

Business can be a virtuous cycle. Business growth is essential for the growth of our people. It enables us to help provide a stable living for them, which is the bedrock for their fulfillment at work and in life. Then, the investments we make in growing our people ultimately helps to grow the business; when we grow the business, it provides greater opportunities for our people to flourish.

But our customers are very important stakeholders in that cycle. They’re the ones who buy our products. For this entire relationship to work, however, we have to have our customers’ trust. And that does not come from doing whatever we can to make a quick buck off them, it comes from truly caring about their needs and treating them like our friends and family. Their business potentially has their own virtuous cycle and we’re part of that.

We need to succeed for our people and to do that, we have to succeed for our customers. It’s not just enough to be a successful business that creates value for your shareholders, or to be a great place to work. Everyone should be part of a winning team; all stakeholders should gain from their association with us.

Tip #5: Recognize that leadership is a privilege

A friend of mine, his daughter was getting married. He was walking her down the aisle and everybody’s oohing how beautiful she looked, how proud he was, how precious this young man was at the altar. All of a sudden, my mind goes to a different place. I said, “All 12,000 people who work for Barry-Wehmiller around the world are like that young man and young lady. They’re somebody’s precious child whose parents simply want them to live a life of meaning and purpose so they could be who they intended to be.” We have the power to help give their lives meaning and purpose.

That day, I stopped looking at people as a function for my success. When you see them as somebody’s precious child and not as a function that you use for your success, it changes everything, the way you view things, the way you choose the words. That day, I realized that we needed to begin teaching people how to care for those they have the privilege of leading.

I truly believe that when we teach our business/organizational leaders that their primary responsibility is to give those in their care a grounded sense of hope for the future; when we create an environment where people can bring their gifts, develop their gifts, and share their gifts so they return home each night knowing that who they are and what they do matters; and when our team members feel cared for, they will naturally care for others.

The foundation of this vision for the future of work is skills centered around empathetic listening, recognition and celebration and a culture of service to others.

We can move from a me-centric world to a we-centric world. I believe it is possible. I believe Truly Human Leadership is the key.

For more lessons in extraordinary leadership and teamwork, look no further than our upcoming global summit, Made Extraordinary. This is your launchpad to level up. Reserve your FREE seat today.

Bob Chapman will share his experiences and philosophy on Truly Human Leadership at the SafetyCulture Summit: Made Extraordinary, a free 2-day event set to inspire working teams around the world. Learn how organisations can achieve extraordinary success through great teamwork. Reserve your FREE seat today.

About the author

Recently named the #3 CEO in the world in an Inc. magazine article, Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO of St. Louis-based Barry-Wehmiller, a $2.5B global manufacturing business. Chapman took over the reins of a struggling bottle washer business, and over 40 years transformed it into a company of 12 business units with 11,000 employees. Appling a blend of strategy and culture, he led Barry-Wehmiller through almost 90 successful acquisitions. Instead of traditional management practices, Chapman uniquely champions a people-centric approach that he calls Truly Human Leadership - inspiring employees to feel valued and cared for. Chapman has co-written a bestseller book and his list of speaking engagements include Fortune Scale Up Summit, TEDxScottAFB, and numerous others.