Upholding humanity and human dignity

A superpowers leadership framework has three humanizing benefits.

How do we lead toward our humanity? How do we lead in service of the human – and the humane? Years ago, when I started researching ‘superpowers’ – my term for the innate and instinctual strengths we all have that make us inimitable – I came to a much fuller appreciation of what it means to be human, seen and valued by those around us. I found that understanding our superpowers and the superpowers of those we work with helps us to be more compassionate, empathetic and mindful of human dignity.

As I work with the leaders of top companies and organizations, I try to implement a superpowers leadership framework. It rests on a fundamental belief in the value of the individual and their ability to contribute through the precise and unique manifestations of their humanity. By starting with the assumption that everyone possesses at least one superpower, such a framework has three key humanizing benefits.

First, a superpowers leadership framework sees that everybody is essential. One of my favourite terms to come out of the pandemic was the ‘essential worker’. Before Covid-19, if asked to name an essential worker, I might have named doctors, police, and other first responders. After the last few years, we now have a more inclusive definition of who is essential.

But I’ve also wondered: why did we not consider jobs like grocery store cashiers, teachers, or transportation workers essential? Maybe it’s because these jobs are low paying or relatively ‘invisible’: these are not the values our society associates with success. In sports, we focus on baskets or goals scored. In business we focus on profit. But in a crisis, our normal metrics aren’t effective. A crisis reveals that society is held up by more than profits: it relies on real people who show up again and again. This is what it means to be essential.

A superpowers framework helps us to expand our definition of what matters, who is valuable, and what skills make the world go round. It prompts leaders to acknowledge that every single employee has something essential about them. The leader’s job, then, is to discover and cultivate that ability in everyone.

Second, a superpowers framework changes the measure of success. When leaders know and appreciate the superpowers of those on their team, the metric of success becomes localized, individualized – and humanized. It becomes possible to succeed on one’s own terms and narrate new, broader, understandings of success. This is because superpowers are non-competitive. They can’t be imitated. Everyone’s success, then, matters. Superpowers help us to avoid the pitfall of making one single definition of success the common denominator for all, which inevitably sets some up to fail.

Third, a superpowers framework creates a culture of belonging. Creating a culture of belonging in the workplace is not as simple as hosting family potluck dinners and Christmas parties. I want to suggest that it’s not entirely about interpersonal relationships at all. Indeed, I want to suggest that the building blocks of belonging are much more personal. If you don’t know what you bring to a team, how can you hope to belong on that team?

Leaders who adopt a superpowers framework will understand that they have a responsibility to name, nurture, and celebrate the innate talents and skills of those on their teams. If leaders are unable to differentiate team members beyond their titles, then they have a culture of association, not belonging. To truly unleash human potential, leaders need to see people as people, not positions nor functions. And strategically-matching compatible superpowers on teams has the added benefit of eschewing the comparison trap and promoting psychological security. When everyone knows what they bring to the table, the table, I’ve found, grows to accommodate the abundance.

Sanyin Siang is a Pratt School of Engineering professor and leads the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University.