Radical Reflections for Human-Centered Leadership

Human-Centered Leadership Defined

Human-centered leadership spans the boundaries between employees, organizations, and how the commitments made by these organizations impact the communities they serve. The social contract between workers, employers, and society is undergoing enormous change, catalyzed by a multitude of events: COVID-19, the entry of the first wave of GenZ workers coupled with the retirement of Boomers, Quiet Quitting, the Great Resignation, commitments to creating equitable, diverse and inclusive cultures, corporate purpose focused on ESG goals, the rapid evolution of technology, political polarization, and the rapid impacts of climate change. 

These forces are changing the way we think about leadership—and particularly technology and digital transformation leadership. Our upcoming book, Doing Well and Doing Good: Human-Centered Digital Transformation Leadership [Spring 2023], defines human-centered leadership in this way: 

Human-centered digital transformation leadership balances the creation of organizational financial value with the human impact on all stakeholders who create, use, or are economically, psychologically, physically, ecologically, or legally advantaged or disadvantaged by digital technologies. 

Radical Reflection: What Exactly is That? 

That’s a really big ambition, and there’s a lot packed into that statement. How do we even begin thinking about how to be more human-centered as leaders, particularly in the field of technology leadership? The practice of radical reflection can help create that growth mindset that challenges our assumptions and helps us think differently. So what is radical reflection? It’s a way to ask provocative, challenging questions that we likely have not asked ourselves before, a way to shake up our thinking and get past the assumptions that frame our everyday actions. It creates a space to think and learn. So as we think about shifting toward a more human-centered leadership style, we can use radical reflection to challenge our everyday thinking, assumptions, and decisions as we balance doing well and doing good. 

Radical Reflection Questions: Thinking About Technology

 Technology will play an enormous role in creating a sustainable and equitable future for all of us. We’ve posed some questions for technology leaders to consider—but think they can apply to all leaders. A place to start is by asking questions about the consequences of leadership decisions in three categories: For our teams, for the organizational culture, and for the stakeholder community impacted by the technology we build. 

Take some time to read each question and write down a reflection for each one. In that sentence there are two key phrases to radical reflection: “Take some time” and “write down.” Skimming won’t work. Radical reflection requires time and thinking, and your insights may surprise you! 

Let’s take a look at some of those reflection questions:  

For your teams: Wealth creation

Who will participate in creating technology? Sure, the software engineers, data scientists, and other technology professionals in your team. But dig a little deeper: 

  • Do the creators of the technology represent a diverse team? 
  • Do all team members have equitable opportunities to contribute to the design and production processes? 
  • Do those contributions translate into equitable opportunities for recognition, patents, and other benefits? 

Who will benefit from wealth creation? Technology creates wealth for founders, investors and stockholders. But there are other interesting questions emerging about wealth creation: 

  • Do team members have the equitable opportunities to benefit in that wealth through stocks, options, and bonuses themselves? 
  • Does team member mean only the individuals who created the new technology or does it apply to all employees? 
For organizational culture: Growth and Well-Being

Are team members given the opportunity to actually grow and learn?  Virtually all companies believe that fostering growth and learning opportunities is important. In fact, Training, Learning and Development is a recommended category for reporting about investments in human capital. It’s expected that we’re creating growth opportunities for our employees. So consider these questions: 

  • Has the organization clarified what skills and capabilities they want you/your team to develop? 
  • Are you/your team given time to learn and grow—or is it expected that gets done on the back of a full work day? 

Do organizational policies and actual practices support well being? It’s one thing to have policies that support well-being. It’s another to make them part of our every-day leadership practices when revenue demands, product deadlines, and other stressors demand more and more from us and our teams. In a recent interview, a digital transformation executive said her company had created “an electronic salt mine.” Consider these questions: 

  • Do you regularly agree to disrupt current project plans and deadlines to accelerate deliverables? Why does that happen? 
  • Do you fully support time off—or subtly message that it will be taxing to the team and make it uncomfortable? 
  • Do you model well-being practices—your team can see you actively taking care of yourself? 
For the stakeholder community: Managing the Unseens

Do the benefits of the new technology clearly outweigh the potential negative consequences? It’s important to understand the impact of new products and services on stakeholder communities. Unseen consequences—the unseens—can get have severe repercussions for real human beings.  Here are some radical reflections you can ask: 

  • Will this new solution be accessible to all—or will come entire categories of people not have access? 
  • What community resources will the new technologies/solutions use—and how will the community be fairly compensated for the use of those resources? 
  • Will the new technology create a potential harm for the user—and how do mitigate that potential? Let’s take an example for this question. Imagine creating a new social media app. Traditional benchmarks for judging an app’s success traditionally include metrics like the number of downloads from the app stores but also from various engagement metrics: Reach, impressions, amplification, engagement rate, social share of voice. These all indicate the economic value of the app. But what about the unintended consequences that might relate to addiction. Will it make users vulnerable to cyber-bullying?  To addictive use? To increased suicide rates? Potential for political radicalization? These questions can help change how we measure success, thinking about how we will both do well and do good. 

In Sum

Human-centered technology leaders can step back to engage in radical reflection that challenge our assumptions and leadership practices. We can be more balanced in thinking about how we create both economic and social value for our organizations. Taking time to get some new perspectives can challenge our assumptions, bring in some fresh air and thinking, and help us create the sustainable and equitable future we desire.