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Go Behind the Mask by Leaning in to Your Humanness at Work

I landed my first job in 1979.

I was thrilled that I’d be taking home my first real paycheck as an adult. I cared more about what it meant than the digits in front of the decimal point. In my interview, we didn’t discuss the culture or company purpose because that wouldn’t have occurred to us. During my first few months on the job, I wasn’t thinking about a rapport with my boss because that wasn’t something you expected. Instead, I focused on my sense of duty to perform in exchange for taking that check home every two weeks.

Fast-forward to 2008 when my company needed a critical leadership change. The board asked me to step up and run the company that I had worked for more than fourteen years. I’d hired many of the people who worked there. I felt a connection and a responsibility to the staff. I thought about how we could make important changes to improve the culture of trust.

These were not 1979 thoughts.

If that wasn’t enough to prove how much had changed in twenty-nine years, my first day on the job confirmed any suspicions. I had more than a thousand messages, ranging from the mayor to every person who represented a bubble on the org chart. They all needed answers, and their expectation was that I’d get back to them promptly.

Expectations have increased exponentially since I began my career—especially within the last five to ten years. And those rising expectations still have to be met in the midst of competing forces that I explore in my book, Transfluence. The most impactful forces are the trends we see with diversity, access, and acceleration. We no longer work in homogeneous groups, co-locate in one building, or work on computers running at Paleozoic speed.

Today, people see more, hear more, do more, and expect more—all within a highly compressed timeline. So how do leaders help their teams overcome these influences that only lead to greater complexity and anxiety? They do what artificial intelligence can’t: they lean into their humanness.

I was reminded of this simple truth when I had a conversation with Willy Walker, chairman and CEO of Walker & Dunlop. Walker asked me about the 3H-Core, a belief system that has carried me through the most trying times. The three Hs—humility, honesty, and heart—are the foundation of human-centered leadership. Inspired by this idea, Walker shared a story that emphasized the power of one person’s humility affecting an entire group. He was in an MBA program during his first week of coursework, and they decided to share introductions.

The early sharing was very formal and, frankly, intimidating until one person stood up and said, “I applied to this program five times, got turned down four, and on the fifth, I got accepted—and I’m absolutely thrilled to be here.” This person’s humility totally changed the narrative in the room. After that, rather than share stiff resume highlights, people began to open up about personal interests and hopes for the program.

Walker’s example perfectly illustrates why humility is a leader’s best contagion. Humility is catching and our best defense against the rising tide of expectations. Smart leaders know that if they show this quality in their decision-making and communication style, their behavior will spread. The end result is employees who collaborate better, fail better, and have an overall improved sense of well-being.

While 1979 conjures memories of simpler times at the workplace, they were also very transactional. Show up, do the job right, and collect a paycheck. Though today involves greater complexity and expectations in how we perform and relate with one another, it also means we need to bring a fuller, more human version of ourselves to work. I hope it’s catching.

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