Plenty of research over the past three decades strongly suggests that people leave managers, not companies.

To solve this Great Resignation crisis, leaders and managers in positions of power and influence first need to understand what truly makes humans at work tick. First of all, you don't manage people; you lead people and manage the work.

But there are prerequisites. At some point in a leader's upward career path, they must confront a few hard truths about how to effectively inspire and get the best out of their people.  

The brutal truths

The biggest prerequisite is a change in mindset around the practice of true leadership: It's a matter of the heart. That means how you make your employees feel has everything to do with how they perform. 

Here are five brutal truths about what truly defines leadership success. 

1. Putting your employees ahead of your customers

Every leader's role should be about serving the employees first -- those closest to the customer experience. Great leaders realize that their No. 1 customer is their employees. If they take care of their people, train them, and empower them, those people will become fully engaged about what they do. In turn, they will reach out and take care of their second most important customer -- the people who buy their products or services.

2. Giving your employees purposeful work

Atlassian's State of Teams study found that 49 percent of workers suffer from low energy levels, saying they don't derive meaning or purpose from their work. While leaders often look at things like revenue and sales as metrics of success, purpose-driven work allows team members to feel more connected to the work they're doing and provides a clear understanding of the motivation behind each business decision.

3. Reducing loneliness in the workplace

What does this have to do with true leadership in the age of Covid? Everything. In a recent study, 36 percent of respondents reported feeling lonely "frequently" or "almost all the time or all the time." Leaders have a human responsibility to reduce loneliness in the often isolated remote world of work. A good starting point is to build community and promote a sense of belonging and connection for all team members. When people feel connected in cultures of belonging and inclusion they are happier and more engaged in their work. 

4. Bringing more humanity to the workforce

The pandemic has forced leaders to embrace vulnerability and showcase a new level of humanity and authenticity in the workforce. Brad Hillier, CEO of Re-Bath, has embraced this change in leadership. "By sharing big company issues, discussing what you're struggling with, asking for help, and being transparent, your team will follow suit -- and together you can work toward creative solutions more effectively and efficiently," he explained to me.

What workers are looking for is a fully accessible human being as a leader. While always central to exceptional leadership, the pandemic created a crash course on how vulnerability and empathy should be guiding principles to your leadership style. "The emotion brought forth by the pandemic was felt by all -- leaders were forced to understand and navigate how that impacts themselves and their teams. This led to self-disclosure and acting with compassion which, in turn, led to better results," Hillier told me.

5.  Loving your employees

Love here is not a squishy feeling; it's a verb. It's love that shows up with intentional action in meeting the needs of others to get results, clearing obstacles from people's paths, and empowering others to succeed and grow. It has intrinsic value for both leader and employee.

Kelly Merbler, principal of the Kelly Merbler Company, teaches and coaches her clients to unleash actionable love and care to achieve results. She said, "As a leader, it is critically important to show your employees that they are loved and that they are valued. It's so important to create a culture that allows them to do their best work and feel they are creating a positive contribution."

There are several ways in which leaders can demonstrate actionable love for their No. 1 customer -- their employees:

  • Foster a culture of psychological safety so that employees are free to speak up, experiment, give feedback, and ask for help. This act of "love" eliminates fear and leads to better learning and performance outcomes. 
  • Understand each team member's unique experiences, challenges, and opportunities for improved success, which will greatly increase their engagement.
  • Love them by giving them freedom. Autonomy, or the ability to control what you do, when you do it, and with whom, is one of the fundamental elements of what intrinsically motivates human beings, which leads to better performance.