Welcome to our ‘Unlocking Leadership’ series, where we tap into the wisdom of some of the most inspiring founders, leaders and business minds of today. Explore insider stories, strategies and insights, as we unlock the secrets of successful leadership.

Philippa White is a global thought leader, social innovator and Founder and CEO of TIE Leadership, a company that offers unique, experiential leadership development programs to empower personal growth.  For over 20 years she has been dedicated to unlocking the potential of corporate leaders by igniting the power of a people-first approach to business.

Philippa’s new book, ‘Return on Humanity: Leadership lessons from all corners of the world’ is about putting our human qualities at the heart of business, and tapping into what she describes as ‘human assets’, such as empathy, kindness, vulnerability and cultural intelligence. Drawing on unique stories from diverse fields, cultures and businesses, her book explores lessons from all around the planet which, together, arrive at the same conclusion: “The more human people are, the better it is for the world.”

Here, the Canadian author, speaker and podcaster discusses the power of a more human approach to leadership, and why it’s not only more profitable, but will also give us a better future.

How and why should business leaders tap into their human assets?  

What’s so often missing in business — and what people need — is this ‘permission’ to tap into our human assets. No one teaches these softer skills, like empathy, vulnerability, cultural intelligence, and building trust, yet these are the most powerful, and what business needs now more than ever. 

The stats prove it; more ‘human’ companies are 32% more competitive and profitable than companies that don’t focus on these human qualities. And employees that are happy are 400% more innovative and creative. If we know that, why are business schools not teaching this?  

People don’t realise that tapping into their human assets is what will make them a better leader because they haven’t been given the permission. You look at law firms, banks, and business in general. People feel they have to play this role of the authoritarian leader, or have this top down approach. But it doesn’t work anymore. If they were given permission to be more human, more vulnerable, more empathetic, life is easier.

What are the core qualities of human-centred leadership?

In my book, I talk about three key areas:

Self awarenessthis is how in touch people are with themselves; who they are and what matters. The less they’re worried about the external stuff, the more they will stand up for their values and for other people, and challenge things.

Interconnectedness this is the understanding of cause and effect; that what happens ‘here’ can impact someone ‘there’. The more business leaders consider this, the more sustainable business is, and the world.

And interdependence this is about being part of a greater whole, citizenship, collaboration and partnerships. Understanding that we need other people to make things better. 

What role does vulnerability play in business?

If your boss is happy to say ‘I don’t know, I need you to help me’, that is powerful.  First, it brings in other voices, secondly, it empowers you as a person. 

As people get more senior, it’s easy to get stuck in your ways and feel like you know everything. But the more you can say ‘I don’t know’ and open up opportunities for other people to bring in more ideas, the more innovative your organisation will be; the more empowered people will feel; the more people will want to work there — and the more creative solutions that will come through. 

This isn’t what we get taught in business school. So, it really needs to be back to basics for business schools, and businesses need to invest in this. The schooling system isn’t teaching it; there’s not a lot of this being taught within the family structure. Yet, this is the future of our planet and for business. 

Can ego get in the way of vulnerability, or fear that it will be seen as weakness?

Often this comes down to insecurity and how happy people are. I don’t know how often people have stopped to think about what makes them happy. Is what you’re doing making you happy? Are you in that role because you want to be? Or because society pushed you into it, or your family, or your work?

Unhappy leaders do not make for happy teams, because then you have insecurities; you don’t listen, you force your opinion on people. But, the happier you are within yourself and the more aware of what you want and where you should be; what you’re amazing at, and unlocking that… the better for everyone. People need to understand what their ‘thing’ is, and if they’re in the right role for their ‘thing’ to be realised. All of that comes down to self-awareness, which is where people might need coaching, or where self-help or therapy comes in.

How can people develop these leadership skills?

One of the biggest challenges we have is that many people who are in leadership come from a certain background. They all hang out with the same people; have the same conversations; go to the same places on holiday. They feel very safe in these environments. And that’s natural; we like ease and routine. But that is not conducive to growth. That is not conducive to thinking differently and pushing your concepts of how the world works. 

Often, the people who are in power and making decisions only know the concept of their world. But that’s not actually how more human leadership can work. We need to change people’s concepts of themselves within the world, and how they interact with the world, and how the rest of the world functions.

The importance of being curious, of having wonder and asking questions… we don’t make enough of a point of doing that. We need to find opportunities where we’re seeing things for the first time, where we’re trying things that leave our feet slightly above the ground. Yes, It makes us feel uncomfortable, like we’re feeling a little bit out of our depth. But we need to look for those types of opportunities because they don’t just happen. 

The more that we expand our personal circle and talk to different people, the more that we find those opportunities where adversity hits us, and we have to overcome it — the more resilient we become, the more interesting we become. And the more interested we become, the more our mind opens.

What is cultural intelligence (CQ)?

In her book, ‘Cultural Intelligence: The Competitive Edge for Leaders Crossing Borders‘, Julia Middleton explains that CQ is the natural evolution from intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ).

Now more than ever, we need people who can identify with situations that are different to what they are used to; people who actively seek out these opportunities and are able to inspire people to come together to solve challenges and make progress.

To spark innovation and find solutions to the difficulties that our world faces, we need to be able to work across sectors, network better, gain trust from people who are unlike ourselves, and relate to different generations.

How can leaders measure success, beyond financial performance?  

If you throw the net wider than just focusing on return on investment, you’re looking at a much grander area of impact. As a leader you look at areas you’re impacting and what success looks like to you. Is your team happy? If not, what can you do? Are people leaving? If they are, why? Are your customers happy? Happy customers only happen when employees are happy; there is a very direct correlation. And are you being kind to yourself as well, as far as what those metrics are. Understand your people’s purpose; what makes them happy and what is their thing to unlock. Then it’s giving them permission to be themselves. 

How can leaders cultivate a diverse culture?

When you have a whole team of people who can do the things that you can’t do, and you empower them, and they understand why they’re here, then you have this amazing, diverse team of people who probably do come from different places and have different ways of seeing the world. And that’s a real competitive advantage. But the thing is, you have to start with ‘who are you? What is your purpose?’ And of course the company needs to know what its purpose is. Everybody then is there for that.  

How important is connection and belonging?

Businesses have the potential to instigate huge change by focusing on developing stronger connections. If you create a workplace culture where people are seen and valued for their humanity, they’ll then want to work hard for the mission of your company. If something is meaningful to someone, and they feel connected to it, they will be engaged, look after it and work towards its success.

You can learn more about Philippa White’s debut book ‘Return on Humanity‘, and TIE Leadership’s unique leadership development programs here.