The 12 Keys to Leading from Humanity in Healthcare

The 12 Keys to Leading from Humanity in Healthcare

The 12 Keys to Leading from Humanity in Healthcare

By Liliane de Vries

Many leaders who are longing to make a difference, and I believe it is within all of us, are asking me what it truly means to Lead from Humanity.  

Firstly, let me begin by saying we are ALL leaders, maybe not effective ones, but we are leading at every moment. Whether we are ‘intentional’ leaders might be the question we need to ask ourselves. 

I can’t help but chuckle when I speak to this topic at the Executive Leadership Circles© and Nursing Leadership Circles© I facilitate. I begin by saying that there is a leader in every chair, even if we are not formal leaders. Whether we are creating a positive experience for others or sitting with our arms crossed, rolling our eyes, we are leading others to question what we are thinking and whether they should be doing the same. Immediately after I say this, everyone shifts in their chairs and becomes conscious of their impact on others and the intention they want to relay. It’s quite amusing to witness. Might I add, it also reminds me to do the same.

So what does it mean to Lead from Humanity in Healthcare? Here are 12 keys I have put together to illustrate components to build from, understanding that Leading from Humanity is an opportunity at every given moment.


See, hear and acknowledge others, asking for the same in return. Every human being has the need to feel significant and to feel loved and connected. Think of a child who is looking for your attention, they will do anything, including something ‘bad’ to get your attention, even if it means being scolded. Adults are no different. We will play the victim, yell at someone, complain, ANYTHING, to get someone’s attention. We will try hard to please and find whatever way we need to succeed. Until we learn to ask for what we need, or be ok with failure, etc., we will continue to use a variety of toxic behaviours such as blame, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. So…the option? See me, listen to me and acknowledge my efforts. I will do the same for you and together we will see the human being who is doing their best, in each other. 

Be Proud of Your Profession

We know the power of women supporting women. I would hope that we are moving to inviting men to support women and vice versa. In the professional world it is just as important. Let us begin with physicians supporting other physicians, RNs supporting RNs, RPNs supporting RPNs, etc. Now take it a step further to Leading from Humanity and supporting each other across the board…Physicians supporting nurses, nurses supporting physicians, and nurses supporting each other whether they are RNs, RPNs, NPs, and whether they are young or old. It does not stop here. Include the OTs, PTs, PSWs and housekeeping staff, etc. as part of the team, because they are. Without them, you would be doing it all! Let’s get past the labels and generational differences and see each other as human beings with different experiences, roles and responsibilities. Let’s make a pact to support each other and not beat each other up. It begins with naming it and role modelling it! Be the change you dream it to be. It begins with you!

Joy in Work

Bring joy to the workplace by being intentional, as a culture, with what we collectively and individually want. Begin to ask each other what matters. Be willing to change the status quo for the sake of joy, ensuring patient care and safety are still in the forefront. Dare to change the way we do things because the way we do things has changed. This is a shared responsibility at all levels of the organization. It is about holding us accountable to making it happen, joyfully. Assess what is working and what is no longer working and involve others by asking them what matters. This is not about fixing anything. It is more about co-creating and stepping out of the boxes of how things are always done. Dare to try something new. Dare to have joy doing it because it is really what matters. When we take the time to converse about it, we save the time spent ‘bitching’ about it. Things begin to change. Joy begins to surface.  


Understand that the foundation of leadership is trust, which requires conversations around values and beliefs. Simon Sinek has clearly demonstrated this in his TedX Talk in 2011. Patrick Lencioni’s work around the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team describes the absence of trust being the first component to work on before anything else. We must all agree to values and beliefs that feed the culture we are a part of, hence the organizational values that are put in place to remind us of our collective mission. Speak your truth and have conversations about what matters most. It always brings us back together, building the community we want to be a part of. We cannot lead if there is no trust.

World Views

Begin to understand other’s worldviews. What I mean by this is to understand how each of us sees the world. What is our reality? How have our life experiences influenced us to see things the way we do? How do we understand our future, where we are heading? Does it stem from our past, and holding on to those experiences or are we the kind of person who is very present, foreseeing what is possible only from what is present right now? What are the values and beliefs we bring to the table that are core to who we are? What do we choose to practice based on our beliefs? Are we open-minded, knowing that anything is possible or are we closed-minded, believing that what we already know is true? All these questions make up how each one of us perceives things at any given moment. It is our truth. We get to be right from our world-view. Understanding each other creates more acceptance from a human perspective and allows us to grow from each other, creating new world views all the time. This is true leadership; an opportunity to grow our world views through the eyes of others. 


Understand WHY you are doing what you are doing. The moment you don’t know why, you have lost touch with your humanity and the human touch. You are then functioning from what you do and how you do it, in mechanical mode. With the fast pace of change, especially in healthcare and technology, we must question WHY we are doing what we are doing. A perfect example of this is why we are bathing our patients in the hospital in the mornings? Is it because it has always been done this way? Because it is the daytime nurses’ job? If we are moving to patient-centred care, would it not matter what the patient wants? If we have always done it this way, and the patient has always showered in the evening, who is right? If we leave it for the evening staff, are we dumping our job on them? Do we feel guilty? Do they feel you are just not doing your job? Why are we doing what we are doing? I am not saying that this needs to change; I am simply asking if we know why, and maybe we all have different views on this? Let’s question more, have meaningful conversations and ask ourselves what really matters. Nothing is carved in stone. We are constantly testing concrete matter, why not what matters to human beings? For some, this might not be an issue and why are we making a big stink about it. For others, it matters. Ask your patients? Do you know what matters to them? 


Ask for what you need and offer what you can. Simple acts of kindness root from human acknowledgement. If you need something, ask. Nobody knows what it is you need. What is the worst that can happen? They will say no. Offer what you can. We know that random acts of kindness have instigated others doing the same for you. Be a role model for how you want to be treated. In leading the Leadership Circles© and Nursing Leadership Circles© it has never ceased to amaze me, over and over again, how people who have worked together for 10, 20 and even 30 years, voiced how they never knew how the other person felt or that they would have preferred exactly what others would have preferred. Talk about your needs. Ask how you can be of service. Stop the assumptions and see the human being in front of you who, for the most part, is no different than you. 


Role model vulnerability. Being vulnerable is a necessary risk as a healthcare professional. Nobody wants to work alongside someone who knows it all. Of course we want to work with confident people but there is nothing worse than experiencing someone whom you ask something to and who either flippantly responds or walks away stonewalling you because they don’t know the answer. You have so much more respect for someone who can admit when they don’t know something or are willing to face their fears in a situation, asking for help. This allows others to do the same. When we work with people who protect themselves from being seen, we lose trust in them. When there is a willingness to share and they hold back, we again lose trust in them. Building relationships that define how we want to treat each other and voicing what we expect, helps vulnerability to be acceptable. Having conversations about failure and the possibilities of not knowing something prepares us for the moments when this happens. For example, most teams, in my experience, need to have a conversation around medication errors and how to handle them. Too often, healthcare professionals are covering up for each other versus documenting and understanding that this if for the safety of the patient and not about shaming or pointing fingers. It is an opportunity to grow and learn. We can set rules, but the behaviours do not change if we do not talk about our vulnerabilities in situations such as these. Lead from Humanity by allowing yourself to show your own vulnerability. 


Lead with INTENTION. Whether you are going into a patient’s room, asking a nurse for something, responding to a patient’s family member, answering or not answering a call bell, ask yourself what your intention is. Make it about everyone, not just yourself. I have experienced nurses telling me they do not ask patients their preferences or give them options. They are intentionally not giving them choices for fear that this will disrupt their plan of action to get things done. They do not ask the patients if there is anything they need until they come back to check on them again for fear that the patient will ask them for something. These same nurses complain that the patients are constantly ringing their call bell. When they intentionally stop, hold the patient’s hand, explain how many patients they have and how they plan their day, then give the patient a couple of options as to when they can help them with something, the patients no longer “sit on the call bell”. This has been tested and has worked because they were intentional. I have seen a nurse intentionally take a physician aside and explain to them that they way they were spoken to in front of the patient made them feel uncomfortable and they would prefer if their approach was less abrupt, for example. That nurse intentionally asked for permission to voice their perspective, took ownership of the impact and asked for what she needed. Intention takes conscious effort and understanding of what one is looking to achieve. If the nurse was looking to make the physician wrong and have him understand that he is a bad physician then that intention would have been selfish and not productive. Be clear to lead your intentions with compassion and care; from humanity. 


Be aware of your impact. We can have great intentions but be totally unaware of the impact we have. Both go hand in hand. If I try to bring joy into work and come in with confidence, a loud voice and joke around, I may totally be insensitive to someone’s need for quiet. I need to be in tune with what is needed in the moment. It is my responsibility to ask if I am sensing an impact that was not what I had intended. It is also my responsibility to let someone know if their impact was unfavourable, without blame. Leading is not always about moving forward. Sometimes it requires us to stop and reflect or ask questions for the sake of moving forward from there. 


Clarify assumptions. We all have assumptions or stories we make up based on what we see, hear or witness. Assumptions often get triggered by emotions. We respond to what we think was meant or intended from someone and then make up stories, very rarely based on facts, but more on our emotions. It is great leadership if we can check in with our assumptions and own the impact it is having on us, without holding the assumption as a truth. When someone makes an assumption about you, it is not about you. In fact, it is all about them and their world views. It is only about you if many have the same assumption; then you know you are doing something to contribute to it. You get to choose if this is something that you change and maybe even admit to contributing to. Oh yes…maybe a little vulnerability? 


Be responsible for your own actions. This is one step, but taking ownership is above and beyond responsibility. Whose responsibility is it to change our healthcare system and to improve the quality of care we provide? Whose responsibility is it to bring joy into work, bring humanity to the workplace, to create trust, etc? It is everyone’s responsibility, and, you only have control of yourself. It is about taking ownership because you care, and every person who cares will Lead from Humanity and begin to make the changes we all want to see in this world. 

leading from humanity in healthcare

Alive in Healthcare’s approach to helping organizations, Lead from Humanity is about including all human beings involved, regardless of their age, gender, role or responsibilities. We work with human beings in healthcare. Whatever level we work with, be it front-line, physicians or executives, we always include our Executive Leadership Circles© and/or Nursing Leadership Circles© to ensure we are taking the time for human conversations in order to be effective in Relationship Centred Care© – including all relationships with self, others and the system – for the sake of stellar Patient-Centred Care. 

Circles are about creating a new way to interact with each other; an opportunity to listen, to be heard, to be seen, to learn, and heal with the support of our tribe. Coming together to converse in circle is the simplest way to begin finding each other again and building trust. We are all seeking humanity in its simplest form.