April 9, 2021

So, You Think You’re a Caring Leader? 

“Caring leadership is more art than science.” I’ve heard this come out of the mouths of many of the people I interviewed for my book, The Art of Caring Leadership: How Leading with Heart Uplifts Teams and Organizations.

Why art? When we think of art, we might think of creativity, fluidity, flexibility, and beauty in between the strokes. When do we know that the artist has completed their creation? When we experience it through our senses, and our hearts sing. The same is true for caring leadership.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too is the follower the one who knows and judges whether their leaders care. There is no cookie-cutter approach to becoming a leader who cares. In fact, in the almost 100 interviews I conducted for my book, not everyone exhibited care in the exact same way. Just as we might think of Monet and Picasso as artists with different styles, each leader practices leadership in their own unique way.

Merriam-Webster defines caring as “feeling or showing concern for or kindness to others.” How do I define leadership? I often use the words “manager” and “leader” interchangeably in that those who report to us or look to us for guidance think of us as their boss or manager. No matter our title, “leadership,” to me, is a verb. It requires an intention to help someone’s life be better and a commitment to act for the benefit of others.

“Caring leadership,” then, means taking daily actions in ways that show concern and kindness to those we lead.

I discovered what caring leadership looked like when I was a young child. I am the product of an interracial and interfaith marriage. My mom is white and Jewish, and my dad is Black and Christian. I grew up celebrating holidays and traditions from both backgrounds, which contributed to my ability to navigate complex relationships. Explicitly excluded from any public family gatherings by my maternal grandparents, I was literally the black sheep of my family because of what I looked like. This often left me feeling that I was not worthy, that I was not good enough, that my voice did not matter to the adults in my life.

When I was nine, my mom and dad decided to move us across the country from Ohio to live in Las Vegas, where my dad would be a stagehand at a large hotel. To keep me connected to the Hanukkah tradition, which was a bright spot in my childhood, my mother’s youngest sister, who had remained in Ohio, would send me a huge box with eight individually wrapped gifts I was to open every day of the Hanukkah celebration. I remember staring at that large box with anticipation every year I received it. It was a sign of connection to that side of the family and a symbol of my relationship with the other half of myself.

My aunt, whom I looked to as a leader, had a special way of making me feel included, even as an outsider. She was hyper-focused on making me feel that I was worthy of her love and affection, that I was an important member of the family. As a result, she held a special place in my heart. While she probably did not know it at the time, her consistent efforts to show me concern and kindness made her a caring leader. She was a bright light for me in a family that never seemed to truly care about how I felt.

I have had just a few other caring leaders in my life, including my own mother, who chose to stay on a bumpy path by marrying my father and loving me unconditionally despite being ostracized by her family and friends for the union.

Much later in my journey, I encountered three other leaders who, without knowing it, touched my heart and made me feel that I mattered and that my efforts inside the workplace had meaning to them, my team, our customers, and the greater community. Through the simple daily actions of this handful of leaders, combined with my painful journey of exclusion, my leadership style was born. I set out over the years to make sure that those I led felt worthy, that they mattered in a big way, that I was invested in their future, and that they were important not for what they did for me but in and of themselves.

I experienced deep loyalty from those who were on my teams. They knew I cared for them, and they would go over and above to ensure the success of our initiatives and goals. We achieved much together; they delighted customers and met timelines. Even once I was no longer their manager, we had a close bond that was undeniable.

Over the years, I also met leaders I chose not to emulate. I saw the negative impacts of their words, their actions, and their inactions. Employees, on and off my team, asked me for advice and wondered what made their leaders act the way they did. I could feel their pain. Their pain and confusion triggered in me those same feelings I had had as a child and young adult — feelings that one is not worthy, that one does not have a voice, that one does not matter. I knew I had to do something. I had to use my gifts born out of my journey to benefit those who felt as I did, and I also needed to help change the hearts and minds of leaders everywhere. This background is why I am doing the work that I do now.

Every leader thinks they are a caring leader, and the majority want to be caring leaders, but most fall short of demonstrating that care in consistent ways. Partly, that’s because “caring” is often seen as a nebulous concept or attitude, but leaders need concrete ways to demonstrate their care. Leaders need help to bring to life that desire to care. They need a blueprint they can use to genuinely express their care in very definitive ways — ways that go beyond the kind words and niceties the word “care” often conjures up.

Heather R. Younger is the founder of Employee Fanatix, host of the Leadership With Heart podcast, and author of The 7 Intuitive Laws of Employee Loyalty and The Art of Caring Leadership: How Leading with Heart Uplifts Teams and Organizations.

This article has been adapted from The Art of Caring Leadership: How Leading with Heart Uplifts Teams and Organizations by Heather R. Younger. Copyright (c) 2021. Published by Berrett-Koehler.

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Heather Younger is a best-selling author, international speaker, consultant, adjunct organizational leadership professor, and facilitator who has earned her reputation as "The Employee Whisperer." Her experiences as an entrepreneur, manager, attorney, writer, coach, listener, speaker, collaborator, and mother all lend themselves to a laser-focused clarity on what makes employees of organizations and companies — large and small — tick. As a champion for positive change in workplaces, communities, and our world at large, Heather founded Employee Fanatix, a leading employee engagement and leadership development consulting and training firm, to inspire others by teaching the kind of caring leadership that drives real business results. Heather hosts the weekly podcast "Leadership With Heart," which uncovers what drives leaders from all over the world and all walks of life to be more emotionally intelligent leaders. Her book, "The 7 Intuitive Laws of Employee Loyalty," hit the Forbes Must-Reads list and is a go-to source for HR professionals and organizational leaders seeking insight into their organizations' dynamics.