“Human” Leadership

May 2011, by So-Young Kang

May 7, 2011 was a moment in history for Singapore. The 16th general election was held and it was the most contentious election since it became independent in 1965. It experienced the lowest popular vote at 60% ever in its history…And for the first time, the Prime Minister apologized.


“If we didn’t quite get it right, I am sorry but we will try and do better the next time,” said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (pictured here). According to a Straits Times deputy editor, “Mr Lee’s speech was remarkable for its public mea culpa. And it was remarkable for its — there is no other word for it – humility.”

What is happening around the world? What are people looking for? This past year has seen some very historic moments politically as nations have been overturned in Egypt and over the Middle East and North Africa. What is really so unique about what PM Lee said? Was it acknowledgement that leaders make mistakes? Was it that in order to do better, we need to listen more? Was it taking responsibility for actions? Was it the desire to improve?

I recently taught a course on “Leadership and Design Thinking” where we spent the first 2.5 of the 4-day course talking about what it means to be human (e.g., caring, motivations, core values) to a group of future Singaporean government leaders – some of whom looked confused at why we were talking about all of this soft stuff. Where were the practical applications of tools in innovation? Where was the check list on how to be an effective leader?

I’m encouraged that due to recent world events, we are being reminded on some of the things that had been lost in our zeal for productive outcomes, efficiency and profit. Somewhere in the pursuit of achievement, we forgot how to be human. We stopped valuing caring and empathy for other people (our constituents, our employees, our communities, our families…). Having humility was not on the top of the list of things to aspire to. Isn’t it time for a comeback? Isn’t the world screaming for leaders who care? Who have empathy? Who stand for something? Who are human?

Following this historic election, I had the privilege to talk to about 300 employees at the Ministry of Health in Singapore about “What does it mean to be human? Creating beauty at work.” Here were some of the points I shared to challenge and encourage others to consider what “human leadership” means.


Being human is about “having heart and soul,” “being kind to others,” living with passion, conscience and compassion,” “living with dignity,” and “living for others.” – according to participants.

We are all human. There are a common set of underlying beliefs and motivations that drive our behavior that are core to us regardless of our position, background, education, ethnicity, gender or religion.

It makes business sense to design “human” organizations. If we design ‘human’ organizations that have empathy and care for others, we have the opportunity to create ‘beauty at work’ where employees are given freedom to create, produce and give back.

• However, doing so requires conscious choice and purposeful changes in mindsets and behaviors.

Change takes time but can be done.

It requires patience and some work, but isn’t it worth it to try to create beauty at work?

I will close with an example of how being human in how you lead can result in beauty at work. This email was so timely as I was thinking about writing this article. I hope this both encourages and challenges you.

“Hi SY,

I would actually like to make a request that I do not get paid for this upcoming week. Sounds strange, but I say this with a peaceful heart and it is an earnest request. I was reflecting over the past week, and I feel that my mind-space has been 80% focused on xxx and it is affecting my work rate. I would feel very undeserving if I were continue working at a lower rate for the same pay and it is affecting the peace in my heart. I hope that you would accept this request.”

“Wow! I must say I have never received such a request and I have never even heard of anyone making such a request. I am both humbled and challenged by your honesty and integrity. As much as I would like to honor it, I am sorry to have to refuse you and pay you. Reason is that life happens, sometimes we have to do things for ourselves like xxx or for family that takes up time in short-term. Difficult to have our minds/hearts always with work and not only do I understand that, I fully accept that. Sometimes you will give 20% and others you will give 120%. That’s ok as long as it’s not 20% or 120% most of the time.”

For me, this represents “beauty at work.”