It takes a human to be a leader of human beings

It takes a human to be a leader of human beings
By Alistair Cox, Chief Executive, Hays plc


We’re all human. We have different hopes and dreams, and different fears and flaws. We’re all unique in our own unique way. It’s our uniqueness that makes each one of us 7.8 billion human beings on this planet, human.

But what is it that sets us apart from all the other species? For a race as complex as ours, this is a difficult question to answer, but it’s our brains and our minds that make us uniquely human. The relative size, scale and capacity of the human brain is unmatched by any other species. The millions of neurons in them make our minds extraordinarily powerful – we have thoughts, feelings, beliefs. We have the unique power of forethought and are acutely aware of our own mortality.

We, as homo sapiens, are a species of achievers. In many ways, we’ve used our uniquely human skills to bring more light to our world. We’ve pioneered new medicines that have saved lives, we’ve designed new technology that has changed those lives, and, indeed, created new ones.

Key to all this success is our ability to work together with our fellow homo sapiens. We are a naturally social species and have evolved to live and work together in tribes. By coming together as a collective, we achieve more. We crave social connection and a sense of belonging. We are built to be great at establishing human connection and relationships with others. This is hard-wired into our DNA – and, in part, that’s what’s made us so successful.

In our ultra-connected world, we, as humans, are less connected than ever

As a species, we’ve evolved over millions of years to be experts in social connection. In today’s world, we have so many tools that can make that connection incredibly easy to achieve. Just the fact you are reading this blog means there is a connection. So, why is it then, that in 2020, in our ultra-connected world, we are struggling to establish something that is so primal to us? Loneliness and a lack of human connection is becoming an epidemic in the modern world - this Harvard piece states that as much as 1/5 of the population could be experiencing loneliness, and 40% state they feel isolated at work.

The growing human disconnect that many of us are experiencing is incredibly harmful, both to ourselves and to the organisations we lead. Not only does it damage our performance, creativity and productivity at work, but studies have shown that it can actually cause physical pain and mental health issues.

But, what’s causing this? We haven’t lost all our natural inbuilt ability to build social connection with others – a skill that has evolved over millions of years. So, is our environment partly to blame? I think it might be.

Successful business is all about human connection

One such environment - an environment in which we spend a significant amount of our time – is the workplace. Could it be, then, that it’s in fact, our places of work that are feeding into this growing sense of human disconnection? If so, surely, as a leader of those workplaces, it’s our responsibility to re-establish the social connection our employees feel. To do this, I think we need a gentle reminder, that, at the end of the day, you are just a human being, leading lots of other human beings.


Everyone in your business – including you – is human, with thoughts, feelings, strengths, weaknesses and mannerisms. Both they and you are homo sapiens, living full and complex lives inside and outside of work. After all, your own personal identity isn’t just that of the leader of a business - it might also be that of a partner and/or parent, a foodie, an avid-reader, a worrier, a sports fan. There’s more to you, and more to everyone in your business, than just your ‘work selves’. We are all, when it comes down to it, human beings craving social connection – and, we’re craving that connection because we know it will bring us success and happiness.

The sooner we remember that, the sooner we will be able make the changes needed to inject a bit more ‘human’ into the organisations we lead. After all, business is all about people, it’s about appreciating and capitalising on everything that makes those people human - including their ability to build connection and relationships. Understanding and embracing the humanness of your organisation could be what sets you apart from the others.

Five ways leaders can inject more ‘human’ into the organisations they lead

So, what changes do we, as leaders, need to make to inject a bit more ‘human’ into our businesses and re-establish the dwindling sense of human connection? I’ve shared a few of my thoughts below:

1. Leaders are human too, and your people need to see that

Granted, your people don’t need to know what shoe size you are or what your favourite food is. But they do need to see a glimpse of the real, human you – flaws and all. They need to see and experience your own personal version of leadership, in your own unique style. They need to feel that you are approachable and accessible.

Only when they do, will they really start to resonate and build a human connection with you. So, stop trying to project an elusive or mysterious image of what you think a successful leader should be. Instead, open yourself up, be real and be vulnerable. If you do, you’ll be giving the other human beings in your business permission to do so too, which only serve to build on the social connection you all feel when you come into work every day.

2. Become more self-aware of your humanness

You might think you know what makes you uniquely human, but you probably don’t. Sure, most of us have a basic level of understanding of what we’re good at and what some of our flaws are. But, few of us spend much time self-reflecting on why we do the things we do, or, indeed, why we say the words we say. Even fewer of us put much time or energy into thinking about how those words and actions impact other people and change the way they perceive us, or even how they are able to resonate with us.

So, take some time to understand yourself and how you are perceived as a leader. What is your personal, human leadership style? When you become more self-aware and practise regular self-regulation, you’ll be far better equipped to understand how to capitalise on your innately human traits and lead with compassion and empathy, building human connection into the fabric of your organisation at the same time.

3. Seek to understand the humans in your business

When seeking to inject a dose of human connection into your business, understanding your people is just as important as understanding yourself. The key here is to understand your people not for what they do, but for who they are. By appreciating the daily reality of the humans in your business, and by working on your ability to put yourself in their shoes, your people will begin to see you as a compassionate and empathetic leader, a more ‘human’ leader – one that they can both resonate and build a human connection with. So, come out of your own head and experience your organisation from the eyes of the people that keep it alive every day.

Famously, whenever Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry Wehmiller, a global manufacturing company, makes a decision that impacts his employees, he asks himself, “if my child or parent or good friend worked here, would they appreciate this decision?” As the Harvard Business Review write, “In this way, he makes every managerial decision a personal decision.” By taking this approach to decision making, you will be better able to put yourself into the shoes of your people and see the human impact of your actions. A far more human, personal approach.

When seeking to build a picture of who your people are as human beings, it helps to ask questions, and lots of them. Interestingly, according to research, over a third of organisations polled said they rarely or never sought the views of their employees. So, start the conversation, open up the dialogue. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. Make your people feel understood, and you will be one step closer to building more social connection in your business.

4. Once in a while, say thank you to the humans in your business

Every day, your people give their time and energy to help you make your organisation successful. They give up time and energy even when they may be worried about their mum who’s been rushed into hospital, or their son who had his first day at school that day. They are human beings, with human lives, who dedicate part of their precious time to helping your business succeed - whilst keeping the wheels turning in every other part of their busy lives.

So, show a little gratitude once in a while. You don’t need to send 30,000 handwritten, personalised thank you notes as Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell Soup Company did, but you do need to show gratitude in your own way. You don’t need to say thank you every day, to everyone – do it only when it’s earned, and when you really mean it. Try to personalise it too - it’ll be much more powerful, even human if you do.

If you understand that your people are human beings - who sometimes feel overwhelmed, who sometimes feel inadequate, who sometimes feel pulled in many different directions - you will also understand that they need to hear a ‘thank you’ from you occasionally. You’ll also understand that they need to hear that ‘thank you’ from you, not anyone else.

If you pass on a few short words of thanks, they’ll go home at the end of the day most likely feeling better. They may well store your words in their mind, thinking back to them when they need a boost. These words of gratitude - as small and insignificant as they might seem to you - will mean a huge amount to your people and will start to pave the way to a more supportive culture - one built on gratitude and social connection.

5. Be a more visible and accessible human leader

If, as a leader, your people hardly ever see or hear from you, they will perceive you as somehow in-human, remote, disconnected. They need to physically see you (or at least hear from you), to really see you. It’s that simple. Interestingly, according to research, the majority of non-managerial employees have never had contact with their CEO.

If we are to inject more ‘human’ into our workplaces, this must change. Blanket, mass emails alone just won’t cut it anymore. Just as our customers expect a more personalised, human communication approach from us as a brand, so do your people. I appreciate this can be hard, dependent on the size and reach of your business. However, simple things like walking the floor when you’re visiting an office, acknowledging an employee as you pass them in the corridor and being active across social media are all incredibly powerful ways to start to develop a more personal, human connection with your workforce, letting them experience the real, human you.

Never have we as humans, been more connected but less connected, all at the same time. It’s almost as if we’re so busy running on the treadmill of life and scrolling through our social media feeds that we’ve forgotten who and what we are – humans that need social connection to be happy and successful, inside and outside of work. So, as leaders, let’s help our people remember and embrace what makes them human. The first step? Realising that it takes a human to be a leader of human beings.

About this author

Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.

In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector ith over 6,000 people based in India.