What ‘Humans of New York’ Can Teach Us About Leadership

Leadership inspiration can come from all sorts of unusual places. An example? There’s a photographer called Brandon Stanton who has ironically been one of my biggest leadership inspirations in 2020.

If you haven’t discovered HONY (and you’re missing out if you haven’t), here’s a quick snapshot of what Humans of New York is all about by the creator, Brandon Stanton:

“Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants.

Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them. And alongside their portraits, I’d include quotes and short stories from their lives. Taken together, these portraits and captions became the subject of a vibrant blog.

HONY now has over twenty million followers on social media, and provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets of New York City.

Over the past five years, it has also expanded to feature stories from over twenty different countries.  The work is also featured in two bestselling books: Humans of New York and Humans of New York: Stories.” 

But first, these are just two of the many leadership insights that I’ve garnered from following HONY:

The power of building trust – and listening.

Of all the leadership superpowers, trust is one of the most potent. Whether it’s building a high performing team, or a positive working relationship with direct reports or customers, trust is paramount. It should be your first priority as a leader.

Brandon consistently manages to get total strangers to open up to him within minutes of them meeting. He has this superpower in spades – he builds trust very quickly. The things people tell Brandon are often deeply personal – sometimes they are stories they may not have even shared with close friends or family. So, how does he encourage this to happen? He is transparent and upfront with his intentions. Perhaps most of all, he listens. And listens deeply, with all his senses.

Leadership takeout: Want to build trust at work? Have a genuine, positive intent to any encounter, display transparency about your intentions, and – most of all — practice active (and truly) listening.

Choose compassion over judgement.

When you read the HONY stories, you witness Brandon’s approach of compassion over judgement. I would even go so far as to say this is one of the reasons his project has resonated with so many millions of people. By allowing people to tell their stories without judgement or comment, Stanton connects us to the full myriad of human experiences. We are left with knowing that fear, regret, joy and gratitude are all human experiences. Because he doesn’t wade in with judgement, he allows the person’s story to powerfully connect us to being human. The community he has created largely reflects this ethos too (just check out the comments section to see what I mean).

Leadership takeout: We all fall prey to the leadership gremlin of the fundamental attribution error. And some level of judgement is necessary in leadership. But compassion should be your first go-to approach. This is especially true when those you lead are struggling. You can still make the tough calls in leadership – with compassion.

Related: Icarus: A Cautionary Tale for the Overambitious