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From ‘effective leadership’ to ‘leading humanistically’

Shaista E. Khilji


How ‘effective leadership’ has failed us and what it means to ‘lead humanistically’

A majority of contemporary organizations are single-mindedly focused on effectiveness and efficiency. What started as the ‘scientific management’ movement in the late 19th century, with a focus on synthesizing workflows, has ended up influencing leadership practice. In my discussions with corporate leaders, I often ask them, “What do you consider to be good leadership”. Many respond by referring to ‘effectiveness’ repeatedly. When I probe further, “What does it mean to lead effectively?” The answer, most often relates to achieving goals, creating shareholder value, developing vision, inspiring, influencing, demonstrating charisma, making smart decisions, and getting things done.

I find the narrative of “effective leadership” problematic at many levels. It is driven by standardization of best practices, control, and profit maximization. It reduces humans to rational and objective beings, and sees them as focused on self-interests. It simplifies their needs, decisions and interactions. It devalues concern for human dignity. It minimizes the role of followers, over-relies on leader-centric approaches, and promotes leaders as immensely powerful transformational individuals. It favors cognitive and behavioral aspects, and underestimates power of the context and the evolving social dynamics within organizations. It has led to romanticizing leaders, and presented them as heroes and/or villains. Most importantly, it has also given rise to naïve leadership development program, that continue to perpetuate the same old narrative. The ‘effective leadership’ narrative is ill-suited in today’s complex environment and bears significantly on examples of self-centered leaders around us. When we begin to reflect on irresponsible leaders and their unethical behaviors, we realize that current approaches to developing leaders have led us to a leadership crisis. We need to do better than that.

What if we focused on leading humanistically?

Leading humanistically requires maintaining a focus on positive aspects of the human nature and fulfilling human needs, not only on attaining material things. Michael Pirson in his book entitled, “Humanistic management: Promoting dignity and promoting well-being” makes a case for writing a new narrative that acknowledges human beings as moral, collaborative, and empathetic; who want to flourish beyond maximizing self-interest.

Leading humanistically begins with a more encompassing leadership philosophy. First and foremost, leadership should be understood as a collective practice. Leadership is not position-centered. It is not in the individual domain. It is social, shared and relational, in which both leaders and followers participate. A relational view helps shift the focus of leaders from self to others and brings different stakeholders (such as society, customers, employees, and followers) into the dynamic. Leadership is also contextual in nature. What works in one industry cannot in another; what succeeds in one country will not succeed in another; and what makes sense today will not make sense tomorrow. Hence, leadership practice varies across organizational, societal, and cultural contexts. Finally, leadership is holistic. It is composed of cognitive, behavioral, as well as affective, and spiritual elements. Indeed, there is power in ‘knowing’. However, there is also power in ‘feeling’ and ‘being’. If we want to find meaning in how we live and lead, we have to strive for congruence between our inner lives and work lives.

When we start viewing leadership as a holistic journey (beyond processes and functional expertise), it opens us up to new possibilities. It broadens the scope of leadership development, beyond skills and competencies, to include life orientation. It incorporates social meaning in leading, and transforms human relationships within organizations. It helps us move beyond objectivity, mind and reason to emotions and subjectivity. It humanizes leaders, and makes humans more humane. By putting the ‘human’ back in leadership, we begin to understand complexities and ambiguities of leading.

What does ‘leading humanistically’ mean?

Beauty lies in eyes of the beholder. So does leadership; in eyes of the leader, followers and other stakeholders. Context also matters. Hence, it is within the broader global context that I would like to see humanistic leadership be embedded within:

1. Ethics and Responsibility

2. Social Purpose and Social Impact

3. Wisdom and Beauty

Many of the problems we face today are wicked, such as poverty and rising levels of global inequalities. These problems are ambiguous, interdependent, inter-disciplinary, and require an understanding of the complex social dynamics. These ill-defined problems impact us and the world we live in. No one can solve these problems alone. We need leaders with a humanistic frame of mind, focused on common good.

Ethics and responsibility, therefore, are not by-products of good leadership. These are essential to becoming a good leader. Humanistic leaders are guided by a strong sense of responsibility and incorporate ethics in their daily interactions and decisions. They focus on social purpose and create positive social impact that benefits the global community. They connect with followers and stakeholders holistically. They lead with wisdom, in balancing knowing with doubting, because they know, “in knowing, much is unknown”. Humanistic leaders approach humanity with faith, and with the belief that people are neither super-heroes, nor demigods. They accept “all of humanity” as is, for themselves and others. In acknowledging humanity with its flaws and virtues, they humanize the act of leading. Such an orientation allows them to adopt a ‘developmental’ view, connect more fluently with learning and engage empathetically with others. They appreciate the paradoxes that surround our actions, behaviors and intentions. With followers and stakeholders, they resolve organizational tensions, manage complexities and arrive at more integrative solutions. On a more philosophical level, a learner mindset allows humanistic leaders to lead with kindness, compassion and empathy-or with beauty. In today’s uncertain and complex environment, beauty has much to contribute. We all know that beauty has the ability to move people (and may be organizations and societies). Beyond a sensory and emotional response, beauty also offers leaders an aesthetic experience that involves the whole person- mind, heart and the soul.

My intention is to present the aforementioned framework as life orientation, mindset and frame of thinking. I expect a wide variety with which leaders embark on their personal leadership journey, thus adapt their way of leading in accordance with their own environment. However, positive intent and the focus on common good is necessary.

How do we develop humanistic leaders?

Developing humanistic leaders requires moving beyond a list and position approach. I believe it is the real human experiences that make leaders. In order to make sense of the experiences, leaders must continuously engage in reflection. Reflection is an intentional assessment. It allows leaders to learn pervasively; and move from a position of unawareness to self-awareness and other awareness. Joseph A. Raelin in his book, “Creating leaderful organizations: How to bring out leadership in everyone” argues that reflection is both retrospective and prospective. It helps leaders illuminate what has been experienced and provides the basis for future action. By stepping back to reflect upon their experiences, leaders make meaning of their actions, beliefs and feelings; as well experiment with new ideas, and move to higher levels of awareness. Humanistic leaders make reflection a habit of the mind. They “learn to lead,” and“lead the learning”in their organizations.

In order to overcome follies of the prevailing programs, leadership development efforts should be focused on strengthening leaders’ ability to think critically and reflexively through experimentation and exploration. The myth of failure should be dispelled to foster the habit of learning from mistakes. Leaders should be trained to open up to new perspectives, and challenge their assumptions through discussions and dialogues (such as an action learning approach) with others. They should be exposed to issues-centered problem solving, that mimics the types of social problems organizations are faced with, and be forced to collaborate across disciplines to co-create. They should be encouraged to work with ideas, that they initially oppose, to arrive at integrative solutions. Leadership development efforts should help leaders become “learning leaders” (i.e. focused on learning) and “philosophical leaders” (i.e. problem solving through discussions, experimentation and dialogues with themselves and others). In addition to strengthening reflexivity, these approaches are also helpful in building empathy, and compassion through meaningful interactions with others and highlighting wisdom through exploration, honesty and humility.

I agree that learning to lead humanistically in today’s corporate cultures, that are predominantly focused on effectiveness, is challenging. It requires an immense amount of time, flexibility, high levels of engagement and ease with uncertainty. Having said that, I am also beginning to see many bold leaders slowly shift the leadership practice-landscape. Some of them are leading with social purpose and strong sense of responsibility. While others are leading with beauty and wisdom. Still many more are being trained in programs, such as GW’s Organizational Leadership & Learning (OLL) Program, to think like philosophers, act responsibly and lead with beauty and wisdom. Through my writing, I hope to influence more leadership education and development programs to proliferate aforementioned humanistic leadership philosophy across organizations globally. I am an optimist. May be in a few years, when I ask leaders, “what do you consider to be good leadership”, they would speak of ‘leading humanistically’.

Published Date: March 29, 2019

This article is not a solo effort. It has been influenced by several authors (referenced in the article and others mentioned below), shaped by my decade-long research, modeled after the design of GW’s Organizational Leadership and Learning (OLL) program, and inspired by my enthusiastic students (who enrolled in my classes either by choice and/or because they had no choice). I take full responsibility of all mistakes.

Some authors have been directly mentioned in the article. Other are as follows: Amy Edmonson; Alex Mathers; David Collinson & Dennis Tourish; John A. Meacham; Julie Nelsen; Gianpiero Petriglieri & Jennifer Louis Petriglieri; Katrin Muff; and Gustavo Razzaetti

For full reference of their work, please contact me directly.

This article has emerged out of the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate leadership. For more information, please refer to



Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.