6 Lessons for a More Human-Centered Leadership Practice

“We are only leading when we are centered on making others better.” - Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei.

IDEO’s Lauren Collins and Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei joined us on the Creative Confidence Podcast to share actionable tips for how to lead by empowering others. Here are six things that stuck with us long after the conversation wrapped. 

Listen to the full podcast episode to hear Lauren and Frances’ thoughts on what it means to be a leader today, why soft skills are more important than ever (and which ones you should focus on), and tangible ways to practice these skills.

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts


1. Leadership is about what happens when you’re not there.

"We are only leading when we are centered on making others better.” — Frances Frei

Shift your mindset from focusing on your personal performance to how your presence impacts others. Your goal is to equip and empower people so they can continue to be awesome in your absence.

2. The Golden Rule is flawed.

"Use your curiosity to figure out how others want to be treated, and then lean into that behavior.” — Frances Frei

We’ve all been told to treat others as we’d like to be treated, but that logic is flawed. It works well when we’re around people who are just like us. But the more diverse and varied the group, the less true it is. Don’t assume others share your desires and opinions. Ask them what they need from you to show up as their most authentic selves.

3. Be curious about who’s not in the room.

"If you're in a moment where you're making a decision or changing plans that might impact other people, look around the room and see who's not represented.” — Lauren Collins

This is a great first step toward building a more inclusive work culture. Ask who might be impacted by the work you’re doing and if they’re represented in the room. If they are present but silent, Frances says that’s a sign they’re not feeling included. How might you help them feel safe to speak up?

4. Soft skills are your superpower.

"Soft skills are not recognized and rewarded as much as they could be in business.” — Lauren Collins

The difference between leaders who stand the test of time and those who don’t is a person’s ability to demonstrate resilience, listening, authenticity, logic, empathy, vulnerability, and humility, among other skills. 


5. Distraction kills empathy.

"Offer your attention when you’re in the presence of others.” — Frances Frei

The more we can offer our attention, the more opportunity we have to build empathy, Frances says. One easy thing you can do is to turn phones and technology distractions off during meetings. While it’s tempting to multitask, if we offer someone our distraction, we reveal we’re not interested in their trust.

6. To actively listen, first make space for everyone to speak.

"Starting with listening and making space for others before you lean into the conversation is really important for leaders.” — Lauren Collins

Some people might not feel comfortable speaking in front of a group. As a leader, it’s your role to make space for everyone to participate and show up as their authentic selves. 

Try asking “Can you articulate an alternate point of view?” to widen the space for people to bring up different perspectives. Count to 10 before moving on so that people who need more time to process information can respond. Gather answers anonymously, and start or pause your meeting with a moment of heads down time. And finally, take note of who isn’t speaking. In your next meeting, reference an idea or helpful insight that person shared with you to show you value their contributions. 

About The Speakers

Lauren Collins

Chief of Staff to the CEO and Senior Design Director at IDEO

With a strong background in global strategy and business design, Lauren serves as a trusted partner and advisor to the CEO and global executive team while helping advance and operationalize leadership decisions across IDEO. Additionally, Lauren leads IDEO's global change management team chartered in stewarding IDEO’s culture to be centered in equity and belonging. She also oversees the advancement of IDEO's global JEDI commitments.


Frances Frei 

Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard Business School

Frances’ research investigates how leaders create the conditions for organizations and individuals to thrive by designing for excellence in strategy, operations and culture. Her widely-viewed TED talk on ‘How to build (and rebuild) trust shares a powerful framework and a crash course on stakeholder trust:  how to build it, maintain it and restore it when lost. Frances is the best-selling author of Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business. She and her co-author Anne Morriss published their second book, Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, in June 2020.


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