How to Lead by Empowering Others

Two women, Lauren and Frances, smile in a headshot picture

We all know great leaders when we see them. It’s the teacher that brings joy to every class, the manager that checks in on how you’re feeling, the coach that motivates you to do better. 

For Lauren Collins, Chief of Staff to the CEO and Senior Design Director at IDEO, and Frances Frei, Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard Business School, there’s a common thread behind great leadership—it centers on empowering other people.

In this Creative Confidence Podcast episode, Lauren and Frances speak with IDEO Senior Design Lead Ariana Allensworth about what it means to be a human-centered leader, why soft skills are more important than ever, and how to lead by creating space for others.

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

What is human-centered leadership?

Being a human-centered leader means centering on others rather than yourself. When you empower the people around you to be successful, you push your team to reach its fullest potential. According to Frances, “Leadership is not about us. Leadership is about making others better—first as a result of our presence, and then in such a way that it lasts into our absence.”

When it comes to leadership, you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. Anyone can serve as a leader in an organization, regardless of their role. And conversely, not all managers demonstrate leadership. “Management is just getting things done through people, but leadership is about the environment you create for people to really perform their best,” says Lauren.

To enable people to be the best versions of themselves, they need to feel that they belong, that their contributions are valued, and that they are heard and understood. Oftentimes, people will look to leaders for signs and cues that they are welcome to participate. Ultimately, a leader has the responsibility of creating an environment where everyone can bring their most authentic selves to the workplace.


“Leadership is not about us. Leadership is about making others better—first as a result of our presence, and then in such a way that it lasts into our absence.”
Frances Frei


Lead with soft skills

The key to leading in a human-centered way is soft skills. While soft skills are often overlooked, they are critical to creating trust, strengthening culture, and bringing in different voices. At IDEO U, we believe that soft skills are so important for leaders today that we call them power skills. “They have been the differentiator between the leaders that have stood the test time, and those who haven’t,” says Lauren. 

Lauren and Frances point to a number of soft skills that go hand-in-hand with human-centered leadership. First is vulnerability and humility. It’s beneficial for leaders to acknowledge when they don’t have the answer, and to at times step aside and let others take center stage. As a leader, you don’t need to be perfect. These soft skills, along with authenticity, logic, and empathy, play a large role in building and maintaining trust. With all of the uncertainty in the past few years, resilience is an attribute that allows teams to navigate through challenges.

Lastly, one of the most essential soft skills is listening. With every person who we interact with, we decide whether we offer our full attention. It’s easy to multitask and get distracted in the age of video calls, instant messages, and emails. However, it’s important to realize that how we engage with people affects if they feel comfortable bringing their full selves to your team. “If I'm going to center on you, I have to make the internal decision: am I going to offer you my attention or my distraction?” says Frances.


“Soft skills have been the differentiator between the leaders that have stood the test time, and those who haven’t.”
Lauren Collins


Create space for others

As a leader, it’s important to be intentional about bringing others into the conversation. People communicate in different ways, and you can be inclusive of various styles and formats. Instead of starting meetings immediately, give people a heads-down moment to collect their thoughts. Instead of a larger group discussion, try a smaller one-on-one check-in. This will allow you to build a collaborative environment for engagement and participation. 

Regular group discussions and moments for feedback with your team provide opportunities to participate. Start with listening, so that other people can share their thoughts first. Rather than asking “What do you think?” Frances suggests using, “Can you articulate an alternate point of view?” This can encourage people to offer their own ideas rather than simply responding to what’s already been shared. Then, recognize their point of view to communicate that ideas are welcome.

According to Frances, silence is the number one indicator that people don’t feel included. One tip is to see who isn’t speaking in a meeting, and then meet with them individually afterward to get their input. The next time you’re in a group together, you can then reference them by name to share how their input was beneficial to you.  “Once I positively reference someone by name, the likelihood that they will speak skyrockets,” says Frances. Another effective tactic is to give people more time to respond. Rather than moving on quickly if there’s no answer, try doing a slow count to 10 in your head first. Sometimes, a few extra seconds can make a big difference. 

Also, be mindful about who isn’t in the room. When you’re making decisions or plans that may impact other people, look around to see who isn’t represented. For example, if you are planning your team’s future ways of working, make sure the discussion includes parents, caretakers, and others who may be affected. Early on in the pandemic, some organizations struggled with this after requiring employees to return to the office without consulting with them. A human-centered leader approaches decision-making with listening, curiosity, and empathy.


“Once I positively reference someone by name, the likelihood that they will speak skyrockets.”
Frances Frei


Start with empathy

Being a human-centered leader means being in tune with the needs of others, and centering on empathy. “I think we've all been told at some point to treat others as we would like to be treated. That works really well when we're around people who are just like us, but the more variation there is between me and the people that I'm around, the less likely that is to be right,” says Frances.

To lean into human-centered leadership, reflect on the following questions in your next meeting:

  • Who is present and participating in the conversation? Who isn’t?
  • How can you create space and bring more voices in?
  • What actions can you take to empower others on your team?

If you want to learn more about how to unlock the creative potential of your team and organization, check out our online course Leading for Creativity.

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