Put people before purpose and humanize leadership with Gianpiero Petriglieri

“My passion is this idea of humanizing leadership, of making space for all that is messy and contradicting and complicated in people and in the systems they inhabit.”

7 min read


If you’ve spent your time trying to create a great place to work, where you’re surrounded with people that you love, who share your values, who share your purpose, where you feel safe to bring your whole self to work, where you can practice radical honesty and self leadership, but it’s a constant struggle, says Gianpiero Petriglieri, Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, and one of the 50 most influential management thinkers in the world, you’re succeeding.

“My passion is this idea of humanizing leadership, of making space for all that is messy and contradicting and complicated in people and in the systems they inhabit.”

Because real leadership, humanized leadership, says Gianpiero, is caring about people and bringing them to life in a way that isn’t just efficient, but is sustainable. How can we help each other? How do we hold each other up? How do we support and challenge each other as we build the kinds of organizations that we want to build, not just to invest in, but to live in.

People before purpose

Too many leaders put purpose before their people, says Gianpiero, but good leadership is a balancing act between loving people and loving a purpose.

You don’t want to have to drag people toward your vision and focus so much on the purpose, on the idea, on the principle that once you get to where you’re trying to get to, everything is going to be okay. It's much better and much more functional to actually do it the other way around.

Because if your purpose isn’t clear, or it’s still emerging, you need to make sure that people feel they have the space, both the space of mind but also the physical space, to think, to have hope that you’re going to get to where you want to go.

“I think of leadership as a story that moves you or others, or moves from idea to reality. And the story needs to move in all three ways. If it doesn't move you you lose motivation, if it doesn't move others you lose followers, you lose results.”

The need to be able to shift pace

Executives, says Gianpiero, tend to take inspiration from endurance athletes and their capacity to sustain focus and suffer through fatigue and pain and push through in order to get to their results. But what these execs don’t realize is that professional athletes take rest and recovery very seriously, whereas in business, leaders don't really rest and recover, we instead tend to push ourselves harder and harder without stopping.

“In athletics, the more successful and the closer you get to the top, the more support you acquire: mental coach, nutritionist, managers, athletic coach, technical coach etc and the job of all those people is to make sure you push yourself at the limit of your performance for just the right moment in the right time, but also that you do work that is more focused on recovery.”

Leaders need to learn how to slow down and recover in between sprints, says Gianpiero, rather than go faster and faster until we lose form and at the individual level we burn out, and at the organizational level we plateau.

“Do you understand when is it time to take a step back, or slow down, and when it’s time to push through and accelerate and try to go to the edge of your comfort zone and expand it?”

What makes a leader in our times

Leadership is all about storytelling, says Gianpiero. Everyone can tell a good story, but great stories are not just told, they're built. What does that mean? You can't give a story to others if you don't embody it yourself, he says. In order to lead and tell inspirational stories you have to be able to articulate them by embodying them.

You also have to realize that work is so much more than just something we go to for eight hours a day; for many of us it’s part of our life’s mission. We're all moved by trying to do something meaningful, to leave something behind, or to touch others when we’re no longer there. And where we used to find meaning in organized religion or military campaigns, says Gianpiero, today we get that sense of purpose through our work.

“Once you start seeing work not just as a way to make money or to stay safe, but as a way to actually do something that will last, work is no longer a technical or an instrumental enterprise. It's existential, it's a human aesthetic enterprise.”

How to become a better leader

If you’ve ever struggled trying to juggle confident leading with being human and having uncertainties and vulnerabilities, then you’re doing a good job, says Gianpiero. You could keep quiet and standstill and hope no one notices you don’t have the answers, or keep acting like you do have all the answers without ever actually finding them.

“If you just act without asking, you're a fundamentalist, you don't have ideas, you just keep hammering. And if you just ask without ever acting, then you're a philosopher, which is also not great. But as a leader, you need the courage to act, which makes you move forward, and you need the courage to ask, and that keeps you safe.”

We all have friends, says Gianpiero, but what kind of friends are they? Are they the kind of friends who reinforce what you already know, or are they the type who will push you and enhance your learning? Friends of learning, he adds, usually help you close the gap between who you are and who you could be.

If you’re a senior executive, finding people who will push you to be better gets harder the higher up the organization you are. People assume you already have the answers, the resources to find the answers, but this is an outdated form of leadership, where followers believe leaders should have the answers and are there to make them feel safe and secure. When in truth, a good leader should point in a certain direction and then ask followers to fill the gaps and work out how to get there.

“The best they can do is to say, look, I'm not gonna ask you to do anything, I'm not asking myself, I'm gonna struggle with the same questions you're struggling with. And I'm gonna try to build the same railway you're trying to build, then we'll get there together.”

Don’t let anyone call you a future leader

There is no such thing as a future leader, says Gianpiero. Leaders don’t wait to lead, they make choices and live with the consequences of those choices.

“Don't let anyone ever call you a future leader. I hate when people go, ‘you are the future leaders of this firm, or of this planet’, which usually means, okay, for now just fall in line and do as I tell you, and then maybe one day you'll get the keys to the car.”

Leadership is always articulated in the present tense, as in leaders for the future. Leadership is not something that you can put in the refrigerator, and then take out in 15 years, says Gianpiero, be a future leader, and lead from the start.


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