What is Human-First Leadership™?

The Shift Towards A New Kind of Leadership

A new kind of leadership is emerging: Human-First Leadership ™. The world is waking up to injustices, inequities, and imbalances at a rapid rate. People are demanding to be treated with dignity and care – as they should. Employees are no longer willing to sacrifice their life force in exchange for a paycheck. Today, people want meaning and recognition that they matter at the deepest levels. This changing landscape requires leaders and organizations to shift towards Human-First Leadership ™.

Until recently, businesses could get away with treating people as instruments from which to extract value. “You’re lucky to have a job, so work yourself to the bone and I’ll throw in an extra vacation day!”

Not anymore. There’s a shift occurring from business-first to human-first. The companies that recognize this will win! All others…well, it’s not good. (Read: Struggles with employee turnover and an inability to hire qualified talent!)

The #1 reason people quit their jobs is being under a bad leader. The world needs a new kind of leadership. Human-First Leadership™ is about leading with dignity and deep care for people and society. At the same time, it helps the business to succeed as well.

In this article, we’ll define Human-First Leadership ™. Then we’ll explain why it’s crucial to business success in today’s world. And finally, we’ll tell you how to start making the shift.

But first, a little history. 

The Old Way of Doing Business

For decades, businesses have been operating in a business-first mindset. Ironically, businesses have failed to realize that humans make up not only their whole company, but also their whole customer base. (Duh, right?!) Yet, businesses can’t treat humans as cogs in a machine and hope to engage them in sustainable ways. Why?

Employees think of themselves as humans first and employees second. Businesses think of them as employees first and humans…well, sometimes thinking about them as humans doesn’t actually make the list!

What is Human-First Leadership ™?

Human-First Leadership ™ brings humanity into the heart of leadership interactions and decisions.

It prioritizes people’s wellbeing, development, and fulfillment – not just at work but in their whole lives. This way of leading calls forth the most expanded version of each individual.

“What would be good for the human?”

This is the new central question for leaders. It leads to limitless engagement from employees. Not only that, it also becomes a competitive advantage for businesses.

Is Human-First Leadership ™ Anti-Business?

Do businesses lose if they put humans first? When done right, of course not!

Leading from a Human-First framework doesn’t mean that businesses suffer. Businesses can get their needs met and then some! In fact, a natural outflow of Human-First Leadership ™ is gaining the full engagement of the humans within your organization.

But the path from business-first to human-first requires rethinking our priorities and our actions.

Rethinking Priorities as a Leader

For example, employees aren’t costs to be minimized, but people to be supported. What happens when a company needs to fire, downsize, or restructure jobs? Typically, the decision is made as a financial measure. Cost minimization tends to be at the center. HR is sent in. Conversations occur letting people know about the logistics of their loss. Materials are turned in and a final check is handed over.

Sound familiar? It’s a business transaction, not a human interaction.

Instead, imagine a Human-First Organization™ where a Human-First Leader™ has a candid conversation. They express care for the human being in front of them, and their actions show it. The employee receives support for their transition. Perhaps they have extra time to find something new.

In addition, perhaps the Human-First Organization™ gives them resume support. They might offer coaching to help the displaced employee find what’s next. A leader might even help the human who is in front of them think through the transition, lessons, and possible opportunities ahead.

Overall, they treat the employee with honor and respect for the time they’ve invested. The employee receives sincere gratitude, even while parting ways. It’s a conscious separation, not the tossing aside of a cog.

This is one example of how a Human-First Organization™ behaves. There are countless other ways – and Human-First Leaders™ are the ones leading those decisions and actions.

What NOT To Do

Here’s an example of what human-first doesn’t look like.

Union Pacific railroads was founded on July 1st, 1862. They transformed transportation, and they built great wealth in the process. But according to historical accounts, underpaid immigrants built much of the railroad. The company gained land by slaughtering Native Americans. Not a human-first approach, right?

Today, the company has made some efforts, such as issuing a diversity and inclusion statement. But they still have one of the worst Glassdoor scores of any company, a 2.1 out of 5, with a 13% CEO approval rating.

A Human-First Organization™

Here’s an example of a human-first company. Patagonia is a company that doesn’t advertise for talent. Employees come to work there because they’ve heard about how great it is to work there from others.

The founder, Yvon Chouinard believed that people should have fun at work and be able to take off to play. In his book, Let My People Go Surfing, Chouinard talks about his passion for surfing. He realized that not only did he want to be able to take off to play, but others should too. So, they created human-first policies about flexible work schedules. As a result, they have a 4.4 out of 5 rating with a 91% CEO approval rating.

Where Do YOU Want to Work?

So, let me ask you: If the jobs were equal, which company would you rather work for? In fact, how much more would your least preferred company have to pay you? See the human-first implications to the business itself?

Employees (read: humans) want to work for a Human-First Organization™. Organizations want employees to be fully engaged in helping them accomplish their mission. Thus, organizations need to treat employees as humans first. Then, those humans will harness their power to help the organization reach its mission. Simple math, right?

How to Make the Leap to Human-First Leadership ™

So many leaders are steeped in business-first mindsets and practices. How can leaders and organizations make an effective leap to Human-First Leadership ™?

Leadership development that integrates Human-First Coaching™ is the best place to start. Human-First Coaching™ helps leaders shift mindsets, practices, and even policies to engage the whole human. It’s about moving through the limits in our thinking and behaviors. It’s grounded in the belief that humans, when treated with dignity and deep care, will grow to fulfill their potential.

Human-First Coaching™ is not only provided by trained coaches. It’s also a skillset and mindset that leaders can learn. Leaders can use it for their own development and the development of their employees.

If Human-First Leadership ™ or Human-First Coaching™ interest you, stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, ask yourself what you can do to start thinking of the human first.

David Morelli, PhD

David Morelli, PhD

David is the CEO and co-founder of OwlHub and the creator of the RESPECT Coaching Styles™. He has 25 years of executive coaching and leadership development experience. When he's not inspiring people to grow, you can find him making a fool of himself onstage as an improviser.