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What it means to be human in leadership

10 Mar 2020 | Kate Burnett Ahead of Advance HE’s Leadership Summit 2020 with the theme of ‘Leading with Humanity’, organisation performance and relationship coach Kate Burnett shares her thoughts on what it means to be human in your leadership role.

The challenge of being fully human can be so painful that it is easier to metaphorically shut the doors to humanity, disconnect from one's self and keep a distance to the world which surrounds us. I have experienced this place. It is cold and lifeless. Instead, let us imagine a place brimming with humanity, where the miracle of life is embraced, and the spectrum of human emotion empowered and listened to. It is in this place that the true ability of ourselves and the world around us is raised into our awareness. It is in this place that we have connectivity. And within this connection we can achieve great things. 

Embracing humanity

We all suffer from the same condition, that of human behaviour. So, in order to embrace humanity, we must empower radical self-enquiry into our own subconscious behaviours. Enquiry about our past, our present and what we imagine for our future.

We must know how we first formed our relationship with money, our siblings, our parents? What our family values, rituals, expectations are? How our childhood and past experiences have played into our present defences. What our defences protect? When and how these defences show up? Embracing humanity is about listening with fascination to ourselves through self-connection and self-observation. Listening to my emotion, what ‘I’ am telling ‘me’ about me. When I feel angry, what does that tell me about the gap between what is happening to me and what I value? When I feel sadness, what does that tell me about me?

We need to slow down in order to achieve this connection, slow down and listen. Recognise speed as a defence to our self-connection. If we slowed down, maybe we wouldn’t survive the outcomes of this self-enquiry?

To fully embrace humanity listening with fascination is not enough. One must practice empathy, the process by which we achieve self-compassion and care. This is not easy. Empathy allows us to forgive ourselves for our human condition (behaviour) and sets us up for learning, growth and appreciating the full spectrum of emotion that is needed to be holistically human. Through empathy, self-compassion is achieved by empowering the relationship between my emotion and me.

Embracing humanity is about empowering our emotional intelligence, being authentically who we want to be with continued conscious enquiry. 

Leading with humanity

As we move into the new era of leadership, where flat hierarchies and partnership working between individuals and/or institutions is commonplace, we need to learn how we can best flourish. Creating a united vision, through a sense of shared purpose is of paramount importance. To do this takes courageous conversation, conscious and intentional relationships, and stepping forward with our best selves. We need to learn to stand in the land of others, like a good tourist, visiting their land with curiosity, being able to experience their culture, values and rituals without judgement. Embracing the greatness that lies there and bringing this greatness into ‘our’ land, the land of ‘partnership’ we share together.

Often, we concentrate on the ‘doing’ of our leadership, and we need to learn to spend more time on the ‘being’ of our leadership, the how of what we do together. Leading with humanity is not about being a pushover, instead it is about braving the difficult conversations with honesty and empathy, building trust through listening, empowering creativity through coaching. How often do we stop and ask our team:

  • What do we need to be together?
  • What is the atmosphere like in this team? 
  • What do we need to do more of in times of challenge?
  • What will help us thrive?
  • Do we all know our responsibility, our job, in relation to our goal?
  • How much do we all share the same goal?
  • What do you need more of/ less of from ‘me’ as the leader?  

Leading with humanity is about empowering our emotional and relationship system-intelligence to form conscious and intentional relationships with self, and the system in which we work to best achieve the task of the group through a process of empathy.    

Reaping the reward 

Appreciation loops are all too often forgotten in this busy world although Professor John Gottman of the Gottman Institute talks about the profound power of an authentic ‘thank-you’, the importance of small everyday gestures of appreciation in creating individual and workplace empowerment.

Such empowerment brings reduced staff turnover, increased happiness and better relationships. Indeed, a whole book has been written on the evidence to health and wellbeing by empowering compassion for self and others including saving lives, reducing anxiety, an antidote to burnout, improving financial efficiencies and driving revenue, improving motivation. The evidence is clear that knowing oneself through radical self-enquiry, being more compassionate to self and others and empowering conscious and intentional relationships through being authentically human will pay back manifold. 

How can you embrace more humanity in your workplace and what benefits may you see? 


Kate Burnett has 20 years’ experience in senior leadership positions in the health service, where she enhances the performance of individuals and systems through the art of being human. She is well-known for her work on integrated care systems and empowering learner-centred learning. As well as working as an international Organisational and Relationship Systems Coach, Kate works for Health Education England where she leads a large school of Physician Associates. 

Leading with Humanity – Advance HE’s virtual Leadership Summit 2020 is on 10 June. Find out more and book your place now.


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