Leadership Is About People, Not Self — Building A People-Centric Leadership Trait

Several leadership books/articles have glamourized the leader’s contribution to an organization’s success. They projected an image that a leader was responsible for everything. It has indirectly advocated self-centred leadership among the readers.

Unfortunately, some people have achieved business & financial success, fame, and power through self-centred leadership. They have made decisions and took actions solely on the condition that it would boost their career, reputation, or power. For them, caring for others is secondary to personal gain. However, after a while, those leaders have started intimidating and manipulating of subordinates, creating an internal culture of toxicity. The culture has destroyed the companies, wrecked several careers, and ruined the peace of mind for countless people.

Self-centred leadership kills an organization from inside. It is harmful in the long run.

People-Centric Leaders — Studies show that an organization’s long-term success is because of the great people working within the company. Without them, there’s no business. So, for building a sustainable business, a company needs a leader whose priority is to ensure the welfare of his/her people. He/she has to think from their shoes. The leader has to inspire people to become a better version of themselves, and in turn, they could motivate more people.

What companies need is not self-centred but people-centric leaders.

Bill Campbell, Former Chairman, Intuit, says, “People or employees are the foundation of any company’s success. They are the most valuable asset. A leader’s priority is to respect them, care for them, and engage with them.”

When Brad Smith took over as CEO of Intuit, Bill Campbell told him that he would go to bed every night thinking about those eight thousand souls who work for him. What are they thinking and feeling? How can I make them the best they can be? How to create an environment where an employee can get more out of himself/herself.

People-Centric Leadership is not about himself or herself but his or her people.

Studies also show a strong statistical link between employee well-being and customer satisfaction.

To conclude, if you want to establish a sustainable business, then develop high employee morale by caring for them.

How a leader shows that he cares for his/her employees?


One reason why people failed to care for people in the workplace is due to the usual advice ‘Keep it professional’ or ‘Be Professional’. It meant that we should behave like a robot, devoid of emotions and focus only on delivering quality work on time. “Be professional” implied us not to get emotionally attached to anyone at the workplace.

Kim Scott writes, “Keep It Professional — This phrase denies something essential. We are all human beings, with human feelings, and, even at work, we need to be seen as such. When that doesn’t happen, when we feel we must repress who we really are to earn a living, we become alienated. That makes us hate going to work. The result is that nobody feels comfortable being who they really are at work.”

Bill Campbell says, “Remember that the people in your team are humans. It’s okay to love them for what they are. The whole group becomes powerful when you break down the walls between the professional and human personas and embrace the unabridged person with love.”.


RESPECT — The first step to care for people is to respect them. Every leader and his employees should believe that people want to do a great job, irrespective of job titles & hierarchies. They also should firmly believe that every other individual in the organization is inherently valuable.

Everyone deserves respect.

A survey conducted by Georgetown University revealed that most workers ranked respect as the most influential leadership behaviour in building trust. The employees added that they enjoyed the work when they feel respected in the workplace.

Nobody Is Superior — Bill Campbell treated everyone with respect irrespective of his/her hierarchy or job. He never considered himself superior or smarter to anyone. He was humble.

Kim Scott writes, “Some people consciously or unconsciously begin to feel they’re better or smarter than the people who work for them. There’s nothing more damaging to a human relationship than the feeling of superiority. Just remember, being a manager is a job, not a value judgement.”

WALMART — Respect, Partner, Listen & Engage — One of the main reasons why Walmart consistently outperformed the competition was its employees. Sam Walton(Founder-Walmart), in his earlier years of retail business, realized that his employees(Store-front employees, Truck Drivers, supervisors, and others.) had the potential to influence customer experience as they were the interface between the store & the customers. He also perceived that his store employees were in the best position to learn customer’s needs, wants and desires. They could provide crucial insights into the overall customer experience. So, he began to treat them as business partners and not as employees. He listened to their ideas, thoughts, opinions, and suggestions. Some of those ideas had become massively successful.

As Sam Walton considered people working in his stores and warehouses as partners rather than employees, he shared profits and every business information with them. He also provided them with incentive bonuses, discount stock purchase plans, and health benefits.

Sam Walton said that a leader should not treat employees as a passive audience. They need to be actively engaged. He added that a leader has to think about his employees before thinking about his customers.


To inspire and motivate people, a leader has to look like one of the followers(employees). A leader appearing as a typical colleague but capable of producing extraordinary results would give confidence to followers to improve themselves.

Employees need to see a leader as one of them.

Why Employees prefer A Leader Who Appears Like One of Them? — Humans are a social animal and are naturally driven to be part of a community to reproduce and survive. We have a strong bias towards people of our community. We prefer people who belong to our community or group or who behave almost like us or in whom we see a reflection of us. We can observe the same behaviour in the work environment.

People in an organisation would willingly follow a leader when they feel the leader is just like one of them. It helps in building trust between the leader and the followers.

A leader appearing as a part of the community also makes followers believe that the leader holds the interests of the group over personal interests.

How to appear as a follower?

Enter Their World, Live Among Them and Live Like Them — To appear as one among the followers, the leader has to live among his people, observe & learn about them, and live like them. Without any preconceived notions, spend time and patiently listen to them.

By listening and observing employees, a leader could understand the problems/challenges faced by the people. He/she could learn about the informal organisational structure, the attitudes, the process variations, the cultural obstacles, and the bureaucracy. The more time a leader spends in observing them, the closer he/she could think from their shoes.

Kim Scott says, “Caring for people is not about memorizing birthdays and names of family members. Nor is it about sharing the sordid details of one’s personal life, or forced chitchat at social events you’d rather not attend. It’s about acknowledging that we are all people with lives and aspirations that extend beyond those related to our shared work. It’s about finding time for real conversations; about getting to know each other at a human level; about learning what’s important to people; about sharing with one another what makes us want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work — and what has the opposite effect.”

How can leaders enter a follower’s world?

Alain Levy, former CEO of Polygram — Once, Alain Levy saw some of his junior executives were struggling to pick singles off music albums. Being a music fan, Alain Levy, immediately sat with the people and began to help them. The task took hours of casual interaction. His knowledge came handy. Within a few hours, the story spread throughout the company, creating positive vibes about the leader, among other employees. People began to see him as one of them. Alain continued to involve himself in other activities where his skills, knowledge, experience, abilities could be of significant help to his team members. It further reinforced employees’ view about the leader. Thus Alan entered the follower’s world.

Liz Altman, former Vice President, Motorola — Once, Liz Altman got a transfer to a factory in rural Japan. For leading the company, she needed the support of her employees. Unfortunately, she faced several challenges — The company had a culture that gave undue emphasis on groups than individuals. The employees were predominantly men who had deeply ingrained biases/prejudices against working women. At that time, society saw women as suitable only for low-level assistants or clerks and not for leading companies. Even in the coffee break, men and women sat separately and never mingled with each other.

So, how did Liz Altman overcome those barriers and spent time with employees?

In the beginning, Liz Altman also had to sit with women. However, she saw it as an opportunity to observe employees. Like Alian Levy, Altman was searching for an opening where she could enter the employees’ world.

  • Altman observed that some men spent the break at their desks reading magazines. She joined them in reading those magazines and soon established a rapport with them.
  • One of Altman’s women colleagues got married to one of the male engineers inside the company. It allowed Altman to interact with engineer’s friends through frequent social gatherings.
  • Altman also saw several men interested in mountain biking which was also her favourite sports activity. She approached those people and sought advice for purchasing a mountain bike. And, she established a cordial relationship with them. Soon, Altman began connecting with more people through other common interests.

Thus, slowly, Liz Altman entered the world of her employees.

Genuinely Learn About Them — To enter the employees’ world, a leader should genuinely want to learn about a person — his/her strengths, weaknesses, motivations, ambitions, and other interests.

Open Yourself — To understand a person’s strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and other interests, a leader has to encourage him/her to open up. For that to happen, the leader should open himself/herself. He/she shouldn’t hesitate in sharing the weaknesses, vulnerabilities, feelings or mistakes. It would create a safe space for others to do the same.


For a leader, the next step in caring for people is to help them be more effective in their job and to grow and develop. He/she should create an environment where people can flourish, grow and be energetic.

Bill Campbell says, “A manager has to support his/her people. It means giving people the tools, information, training, and coaching they need to succeed — A continuous opportunity to develop people’s skills. Great managers help his employees excel and grow. They help them achieve their career goals in a way that’s consistent with the needs of the company. They also free people to do their jobs and to make decisions.”

Walmart & Supporting Employees — Initially, as Walmart’s stores were in small towns, the company hired most of the people from the local community. They had little exposure to the real-time business environment, were naturally shy, barely finished high school, and had terrible grammar. Walmart managers spent a considerable amount of time and money in training them to learn to speak correctly, teaching them customer interaction, business knowledge, and leadership skills. Because of that kind of support, a not so well-educated rural person could go on to become store manager, regional head, or national head inside Wal-mart, within a couple of years. On the other hand, in the competitor stores, a recruit had to have ten years of retail experience before the management considered him for the role of a store manager.

A good leader supports those around him/her. His/her focus should be on developing them, helping them succeed, and watching them grow into the people they want to become.

Sidney Harman — A few decades back, Sidney Harman faced a problem in one of his factories. The men on the night shift were supposed to get a coffee break at 10 PM. However, on one fateful night, a manager decided to postpone the interval for ten minutes. It annoyed some workers. One of them got up and said, “I don’t work for no buzzer. The buzzer works for me. It’s my job to tell me when it’s at ten o’clock. I got a watch. I’m not waiting for another ten minutes.”

The worker’s refusal to senseless rule struck a chord with Harman. He realized that as technology is to serve the men and not the reverse, the company exists to serve the employees and not the opposite. He felt the impact of that thought. In subsequent years, Harman revamped the factory and its way of working and managing people and introduced several initiatives to support and empower employees. He converted part of the factory into an educational campus. The curriculum offered classes on several subjects, leadership skills, music, and other soft skills.

Harman also encouraged dissent and open communication. He evolved the plant’s independent newspaper Boilvar Mirror to help workers to use it as a creative and emotional outlet.

Empower Through Autonomy — Granting autonomy to employees is a way to show that they are valued inside the organization. Value is caring.

Sam Walton gave autonomy to people. If people showed willingness and desire, he allowed them to manage the store. Sam never interfered with their activities/decisions. He allowed them to make mistakes and learn from them.

Like Sam Walton, Sidney Harman also gave freedom to his employees and encouraged them to take most of the responsibility for running the workplace.

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, says, “Brilliant people do not like to work at a place where they have tight controls. There is no dignity if there is no autonomy”.

5.0 Think From Their Shoes and See What’s Beneficial To Them

Bill Campbell forced managers to think every decision/idea/action from an employee’s perspective. He’d ask, “Think how it would affect employees? Is it consistent with the department’s mission to “maximize the opportunities for an employee to grow and achieve his/her goals”?.”

Sam Walton — Sam Walton always thought in terms of ‘benefits’ to his employees. When he wanted to hire a person, he would think from the potential hire’s perspective. His focus was never on what would Walmart gain but how much the person would benefit by joining his company. If Sam saw a better outcome for the potential hire, he would approach him/her, give reasons, and explain how joining Walmart would transform his/her life.

Whenever Sam Walton had a new proposal for the shops, he would think about whether it would benefit his employees. One day, he thought of implementing an idea in all the stores. He felt that the concept would be beneficial both to store people and company. The idea was that the employees should try to greet their customers and ask if they could be of any help whenever they were within ten feet distance. While inquiring, they have to look into the eyes of the customers. To execute the idea, Sam met his employees and shared the concept. Then, he explained the reasons and benefits an employee would gain if he implemented the plan. He told them, “If you do this, your natural shyness will fly away. It will help your personality to develop and would help you in becoming a leader. And, one day, you might become the manager of this store”. Always, Sam Walton thought and talked in terms of benefits to others.


Bill Campbell considered his people as part of his family. He coached other leaders to do the same.

Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, writes, “The best way to achieve loyalty and goodwill of the employees is to treat them like family. A sense of belonging would help them put their best foot forward and this would not only help achieve better performance but also cut costs of training and recruiting.”

Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, writes, “When I treated my employees like extended family, I found that they typically behaved the same way with other employees and our community as a whole.”

Studies also show that the way employees treat one another within an organization is a direct reflection of the way they treat customers and clients.

If the company treats its people well, they will, in turn, treat the customers well, thus ensuring their repeat visit and also positive word of mouth references. Real profits in the business lie in ‘repeat customers.’


People start trusting a leader when they see him/her caring for them. Once they trust, they are much more open to face criticisms and improve themselves. They also would be happy to share their ideas, opinions, feedback, and the bad news that would help in the organization’s growth. Studies also showed that employee engagement goes up, resulting in improved productivity and profitability for the business.

References:: Radical Candor by Kim Scott, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle, Sam Walton’s Made in America, What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee John, Crucial Conversations by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan, HBR Article-Rebuilding Companies as Communities — Henry Mintzberg, Principles by Ray Dalio, HBR’s 10 Must Reads On Leadership.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com