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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Humanity: We are not independent but interdependent

  • Gerard Seijts, Kimberley Young Milani
  • |
  • Oct 17, 2019
Humanity: We are not independent but interdependent

Character is an indispensable component of sustainable leadership performance. Ivey research has identified 11 dimensions of leader character: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In this blog, I explore the dimension of humanity. 

Chris Abani is a novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright who grew up in Afikpo, Nigeria in the 1980s.   He and many others in his age cohort were determined to bring down the military dictatorship that then ruled the country.  Imprisoned three times by the Nigerian government, he transformed his harrowing experiences into a series of powerful novels, including GraceLand and The Virgin of Flames.

“What I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand, messianic gestures,” he told a TED conference in Monterey, California, in February 2008, “but in a simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible, everyday acts of compassion.”

He discussed “Ubuntu”—a concept of the South African Nguni Bantu people—which translates literally into “human kindness,” but more generally refers to a sense that all humanity is joined by a universal bond of sharing and reciprocity.  There is no way for us to be human, Abani argued, without relating to other people: “The only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.”

So what do we mean by humanity?  Individuals who exhibit humanity empathize with and support colleagues. Having empathy means you have the capacity to deeply understand what others are going through because you can place yourself in their shoes. You ask people what they need, offer encouragement, and check in. For leaders, this also means promoting an environment where this type of team bonding and communication is encouraged and valued. You have a capacity to forgive, and not hold grudges. You understand that people are fallible, and you offer opportunities for individuals to learn from their mistakes.

In 2011, Martin Pistorius—the author of Ghost Boy, who was trapped in his body with a neurological disorder for a decade—wrote about what he had learned from the experience. As he was returning to consciousness, he was aware of others; however, those around him assumed he had no awareness.  The exception was his massage therapist, who always spoke to him as if he was aware—and, perhaps not coincidentally, was the first to sense he was responding. 

Being unable to respond and yet still aware of others taught Pistorius a lot about humanity. "I think being seen and having another person validate your existence is incredibly important,” he explained, “not just for me in that moment, but for everyone. In a sense it makes you feel like you matter." 

These two stories illuminate the importance of humanity.  It needs to be honoured and exercised in our personal lives, in the workplace, and in society.  An example of an organization that learned to appreciate the importance of behaviours associated with humanity is Google, an organization dominated with engineers (who don’t always appreciate the importance of management and leadership).  In 2008, an internal team of researchers launched Project Oxygen – a data driven effort to determine what makes a leader great at Google.  Through this research, the team identified a number of human-first behaviours (behaviours that are rooted in and display a sense of humanity) that make for highly effective leaders. As a result, Google has been working to create and foster a culture driven by these behaviours.  Examples of behaviours rooted in humanity include:

  • Creating an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being
  • Being a good communicator — listening and sharing information
  • Being a good coach

A remarkable finding was that technical skills came in last. And so the researchers concluded that while it is important that managers have the needed technical level to guide employees, human-centered skills such as creating an inclusive team environment and communication are absolutely essential.

But here’s the rub.  Recent research revealed that college students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40 percent lower than those who came before them.  For example, more students than ever before say it's not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else's perspective. Another survey found that people also think that others around them are less compassionate.  So what can be done about what former President Barack Obama labeled the "empathy deficit"?  The key thing is to recognize the value of relationships and the fact that we are not independent but interdependent. We all need each other.  I hope you take this lesson to heart as you continue on your leadership journey.  In this short clip, Franca Gucciardi, CEO, McCall MacBain Foundation, provides a compelling example how to make humanity and empathy come alive through our actions.

You can read more about humanity in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).