What ‘Humans of New York’ can teach us about leadership (PLUS book GIVEAWAY)

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.” 

This week it’s the last blog from The Leader’s Digest for 2020, so I’m giving away a  free copy of the beautiful HONY book to a reader. (See below for details.)

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.

What or who has been your greatest source of leadership inspiration in 2020 – and why? That’s what you need to share in order to enter to win this beautiful book! Pop your response in the comments section below to go in the draw (or comment on any of my posts sharing this blog on social media) by this – Friday 18th December. I will announce the winner on Monday and message privately for your address details.

Good luck all – and I look forward to reading your responses!

Find out more about HONY here.


  1. Wendy on December 18, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    My greatest inspiration this year has to be Jacinda Ardern – her compassionate leadership and outstanding communication skills make me so grateful to live in this beautiful country. Would love this book for some summer reading and enjoyment 🙂

  2. Christine Celentano on December 18, 2020 at 7:54 am

    Thanks for your thought shares, reminders and inspiration! Grateful to be able to seek, learn and adapt.

  3. Ellie Mynett-Johnson on December 17, 2020 at 9:12 am

    I’m a fan of HONY too Suzi, but I’d have to say that Jacinda Ardern has been my leadership inspo this year! Looking back on lockdown and those uncertain times, I’ll always remember her clear communication, empathy and compassion. When I think of leaders in my own life and work as well, it’s these traits that stand out the most!

  4. Marc Summerfield on December 17, 2020 at 3:53 am

    Bernie Sanders, the American politician, has been my greatest source of inspirational leadership for 2020.
    Regardless of one’s politics, it is hard to deny that Bernie represents three qualities that embody inspirational leadership: visionary, authentic, and challenging.
    Like all inspirational leaders, Bernie envisions a more just and egalitarian society –– knowing that each of us is best served when all are best served. This truth applies to workplaces as well as to societies.
    Like all inspirational leaders, Bernie is authentic. Bernie does not pretend to project an image that differs from his true self. He articulates both the facts and how he feels about the facts. The combination is enthralling. Bernie speaks in terms that all can understand without condescension.
    Finally, like all inspirational leaders, Bernie challenges us. He challenges us to be better, to be intelligent, thoughtful, and caring.
    Visionary, authentic, and challenging: traits for all leaders to admire, pursue, and practice.

  5. Christina Wedgwood on December 16, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    My greatest source of leadership inspiration during 2020 was my husband! He handles a crisis like a BOSS – and balanced beautifully showing extra and genuine care for his team with the fact that they were also facing challenges operationally. If I could do it even half as well as he does…!

  6. Tanya on December 16, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    Its been a challenging year for everyone, Suzi’s blogs have def helped, turning up with easily accessible wisdom and often humour as well 🙂

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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