I've been doing research for a leadership book I'm writing and have been talking with a lot of CEOs, thought leaders, coaches, authors, and people in academia to answer the question, what makes a great leader today? 

As it turns out, and should come as no surprise, it's the soft stuff that is the real hard stuff (a quote attributed to Jack Welch). The responses, advice, and evidence I've gathered so far, supported by research, define 21st-century leaders as relational and human-centered.

We're at a critical juncture in corporate society that demands a drastic shift in the way we lead people and teach others to lead people. From personal experience having coached leaders and managers for years, I find, over and over again, that the biggest challenges are mostly soft skills related, stemming from human interactions that escalate into hairy people problems.

It's the soft stuff that is the real hard stuff.

To that end, here are four things that will lift up your leadership to a human-centered approach that will get the best out of your employees.

1. Practicing continuous listening.

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers, is keenly focused on the concept of listening, which is central to human-centered leadership. "Engagement is a fluid thing and can't be treated as a static, once-a-year survey," Baumgartner told me. She urges managers to take a real-time pulse of their people's engagement, whether on small things like distracting noises at work or bigger issues such as someone feeling as if they're not developing in their role. Then, she says, "it's about showing employees you're doing something with their feedback; using it to have specific, personalized conversations; saying to them, 'I heard you. Tell me more. Let's come up with a solution together.'"

2. Valuing the emotional and lifestyle needs of employees.

Jim Link, chief human resources officer at Randstad US, offered up a great research-backed tip for human-centered leadership: "One newer competency I've seen emerge as critical to great managers is the ability to lead toward decompression. We're dealing with a new generation of workers who've grown up in an always-on, always-connected world. Great bosses will be able to help them disconnect during the workday for creative think time so they continue to be emotionally fulfilled by their job, and, after the workday, to maintain work-life balance and prevent burnout." 

3. Using technology as a bridge, not a barrier, to human connection.

More of our time is spent connected to technology devices instead of in face-to-face conversations, yet we have a human need to connect and function. This is the premise of Dan Schawbel's best-selling new book, Back to HumanWhen I interviewed Schawbel, one human practical idea really stood out for leaders to enforce: "Use technology to notify people of meetings, syncing calendars and managing deadlines, but when you're in a meeting put the phone down!" He added, "I've seen some teams put all of their phones in the middle of a table so that they can be fully present, attentive and ready to collaborate. Technology is great for organizing a meeting or event, but bad when you're physically there."

4. Developing a connection mindset.

In The Evolved Executive: The Future of Work Is Love in Action, executive coach Heather Hanson Wickman? points out that our need for connection is as foundational as our need for food and water. She says that we try to "shut off our need for connection as we walk in the door ... but in doing so, we starve our souls of connection and belonging." Too many leaders believe that they can't get too close to their team members for fear that they might have to discipline or terminate them. This thinking is shortsighted, says Wickman. "Individuals are now looking for much more than a simple paycheck. We look for human connection and belonging."