The 4 Big Hs in a Great Leader

We tend to think of leadership as driving strategy, setting goals, checking KPIs, dealing with issues, giving feedback, reporting on team performance, recruiting, developing, keeping the show on the road. We call leaders managers, bosses, supervisors, directors, partners…and a few less complimentary names. But do we think of leaders as just human beings with responsibilities? And do leaders think of themselves in such terms?

Most advisors and coaches always advise ‘leaders’ to keep a healthy distance between themselves and their team. Good advice – for it is almost impossible to shift out of ‘friend mode’ into ‘management mode’ when things get difficult. It feels uncomfortable to withhold information which is only for the few in control. It feels like betrayal when you have to tell a friend their performance is slipping. However, keeping a professional distance is, all too often, translated into a belief that leaders should never stray into the personal; that pastoral care is the responsibility of HR; that just sitting down and giving informal interest is not acceptable.

deWinton-Williams begs to differ.


Leadership does not have to mean removing your human side. In fact, in the years we have developed leaders and managers, we have found the following four big H’s to be the path to success:

  1. Leaders who show interest in the whole person, their likes and dislikes, hopes and concerns tend to be more effective in managing those people. If you know what makes someone tick then it is simply easier to motivate and encourage them. How often do you sit down with members of your team and just ask them how things are going? What ideas they have? What aspirations they have? What help they need to develop? And how is life?  Would it really hurt your schedule to give ten minutes or even the length of a cup of coffee to make someone feel they are valued? Could you spare some time a few times a year to show you are a leader of people and not just a manager of processes? 
  2. Honesty. The best leaders have the courage to say the truth. None of us like giving negative feedback or seeing the disappointment in another person’s eyes when they are told their performance is below par. But if you shy away from truth you are abandoning your people to sit in under-performance. In the worst cases, poor managers simply write people off and label them as incompetent. They blame instead of investigating. In reality, very few people walk into a role with the intention of failing – more-often they are failed by leaders who do not set clear goals, give helpful feedback and deliver honest appraisal. A good leader never turns a blind eye – they step in and open the eyes of their team.
  3. Humility. If you have the strength of character to acknowledge your own areas of need, then you will get the respect of others. No-one is perfect (if they were they would likely be insufferable) but those who mask their challenges are frequently seen as dishonest or arrogant. As Shakespeare told us ‘To thine own self be true, for it must follow as dost the night the day, that canst not then be false to any man.’  The concept of authentic leadership – the idea that great leaders are self-aware and have the integrity to know their own  weaknesses goes back to the admonition of ‘Know thyself’ from Socrates quoting the Oracle of Delphi, but it has been well researched and put forward as a leadership fundamental by Bill George of Harvard. The added advantage is that proving yourself perfect is hard work – honesty is easier.
  4. Humanity. If you accept your own areas of need then, by reason, you need to accept the same in others. Every person in every business will go through a period of pressure, lower performance, difficulty, loss of confidence. As leader you have a choice – point the finger and label them as failing, or hold out your hand and help. If it were your son, your daughter, or even you in difficulty – what would you hope for? Yes, addressing and dealing with a person who is slipping takes time – but it takes far longer if you ignore it and allow that person to fall further. Most of our HR colleagues tell us that their time is swallowed up in dealing with issues which could have been addressed in hours but end up taking days and weeks – usually with a poor result. A little bit of humanity can save you time and money.

Last words. All of the above takes time – time which you cannot bill or put down on your appraisal as a success over the year. But the dividends are still there in terms of retention, morale, performance and, very importantly, your reputation as a leader.