The Fear of Being Human

As the world of work is changing around us, with younger generations stepping into leadership roles and organisations focussing on a renewed purpose in a disrupted and more digitalised world, the notion of ‘hero leadership’ is still present. But modern workplace cultures call for something different. They call for human leadership.

‘For decades, the traditional view was that to be successful, business leaders had to be infallible, unflappable, in control, and fearless. These leaders appeared to be born hero leaders, naturally endowed with supreme intelligence, coming up with brilliant ideas and directives from the mountaintop that lower echelons were then expected to execute.’ says Hortense le Gentil in this HBR article.

21st Century Leadership

Hero leadership is an antiquated view of work culture. If you want to be a successful leader in the 21st century – mobilising not just your executive board but employees at every level of the organisation – you need to let go of the fear of being human and start to lead with your heart and soul too.

I am working with a senior executive of an insurance company, Brian. He is very experienced, intelligent, confident and the expertise he brings to the company is second to none. He is well regarded by his colleagues, and he influences board decisions and leads major change.

But Brian struggles to ‘bring his reporting team along’. He does most of the talking; makes most of the decisions; and is quick to jump in and fix mistakes or take over the delivery of a project. His team members struggle to connect with him, and since the pandemic has everyone working from home, the situation has gotten worse. He recognises that his employees are struggling, but he doesn’t know how to help them.

The direct feedback from his team is that they feel misunderstood, not heard, and that the constant drive of increasing productivity and workload has them at breaking point. And when Brian opened up about how he was currently feeling, it wasn’t all that different for him. But he feels that he needs to be strong, confident and pushing in the right direction. He said to me: ‘We just have to get on with it. I can’t appear weak, not now. I have to push through and just fix it.’ A classic case of hero leadership.

‘Good leadership is always human. It takes time and energy. It is hard work. Which is why good leadership is so special when we find it.’ – Simon Sinek

While I have seen some change to more human leadership, it is evident that it remains the exception rather than the norm. And what stands in the way of leaders is fear.

Fear of Being Human

Leaders have been conditioned for a long time to never show their feelings. And now they are told that it has changed and they need to connect with their emotions and show vulnerability. It’s a big change for leaders and whilst it’s perceived as a positive one, it’s also challenging.

Fear often manifests itself in fear of making mistakes, fear of failure, fear of not knowing something or fear of being perceived as weak. Only when leaders can let go of that fear can they become human leaders.

Five Steps to Becoming a More Human Leader*:

*adapted from Mark Livingston

01 Be More Self-Aware

Seventy percent of leaders view themselves as inspiring, but interestingly, 82% of employees see their leaders as uninspiring. Another study states that 65% of employees would prefer to see their bosses get fired over getting a pay raise! It is important to look inward and understand your personal leadership style and how you are perceived before you can course correct, evolve and look outward to lead with purpose.

02 Don’t Manage – Lead

The distinction between management and leadership is often blurred. In management, we define success in terms of power, position, completion of tasks and money, using a barometer of financial growth to mark achievement. Leadership success, on the other hand, is being the leader you would like to have, setting the example you want your employees to follow, and nurturing their personal growth and development.

03 Make it Personal

We have heard the term, “It’s not personal — it’s just business.” Debunking this attitude is long overdue. Leaders must strive to put themselves in the employee’s shoes and consider the human impact of business decisions.

This people-centric approach to decision-making makes a world of difference to a firm’s growth, engagement and longevity. In an AI- and machine-led future, tapping into our innate humanness and being grounded by it is more critical than ever.

04 Recognise and Celebrate Often

People are driven to perform their best when they get a sense of fulfilment from their job. Appreciating and recognising the hard work, talent and time that employees invest in your firm should not just be part of an evaluation cycle or celebrated at an annual event. Leaders should create monthly recognition schemes and encourage team shoutouts and peer-to-peer nominations. These should not only reward good performance but team spirit, attributes and commendable acts outside of work. Regular, genuine, personalised and spontaneous, positive feedback and recognition are key to maintaining high worker morale. When leaders show an interest and celebrate employees’ achievements both at work and in their personal lives, it can be a tremendous source of motivation.

05 Listen and Share

Good leaders are great listeners. To make a real connection with employees, leaders must build trust by creating avenues to circumvent hierarchy and making themselves more approachable to colleagues at all levels. Employees should be encouraged to share their views honestly and directly with management, and leaders can help break down walls by sharing insights into their own personalities and life.

I am still working with Brian on becoming a more human leader. The change he has been able to implement in his self-leadership and how he leads his team – with head and heart – has made a big difference to the team culture already.

Human leadership is learned (just like hero leadership was), and you too can become a more human leader.

Do you want to chat further about becoming a more human leader? Email me on to chat about how we can work together.

Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert