Authentic Leadership: Leading with the Heart

My thesis is that authentic leaders are emotionally intelligent and emotionally heathy, in other words, they have healthy hearts.

In their book True North, George and Sims suggest authentic leaders lead with the heart. The idea of leading with the heart resonates strongly with me because the personal and leadership journey I have referred to often in my blog has been a journey of the heart.

In previous posts I’ve emphasised the heart, the seat of our emotions and the incubator of our hopes and dreams, as being hugely significant in shaping our journey. Contrasting the heart with the head, I’ve suggested we have placed too much importance on the role of our minds in our personal transformation and leadership journey and underestimated the life changing influence of what our hearts hold versus what our heads contain. I believe we have failed to appreciate the extent to which we are, or should allow ourselves to be, shaped by our feelings, hopes and dreams and not just our thoughts. Once upon a time I’d have levelled “you are allowing your heart to rule your head” as a criticism. Today I’d pay it as a compliment!

In the context of leadership we have traditionally placed too much importance on intelligence and too little on emotional intelligence, a subject I’ve explored previously. That said in recent years this imbalance has been powerfully addressed by the writing of Daniel Goleman amongst others who have helped us to understand the importance of the leader’s heart as well as their head.

My thesis is that authentic leaders are emotionally intelligent and emotionally heathy, in other words they have healthy hearts. I believe it is impossible to lead authentically unless you lead from the heart and you cannot lead from the heart unless it is healthy. Authenticity is not a suit you put on it’s a journey you go on, and that journey is a journey of the heart not the head. Authenticity is not something you do, it’s something you are.

What has fascinated me over the years is how uncomfortable leaders can become when taken on the 18 inch journey from our head to our heart. This discomfort is testimony to the fact that whilst many of us are comfortable to explore and share our deepest thoughts we are far less comfortable exploring and sharing our deepest feelings. For many leaders the journey from their head to their heart takes them way outside of their comfort zone, the inability to make this journey can lead to them becoming emotionally unhealthy and as a result they are unable to establish an emotional connection with those they lead which means people may follow them but not for the right reasons.

Many leaders fall into the trap of thinking their head got them the job and therefore it’s their head that will keep them in it. This leaves them feeling they need to know more than those they lead as opposed to grow more with those they lead. Their emphasis is more about education and less about transformation, their own transformation and the transformation of those they lead. A “head leader” strives to learn more in order to educate those they lead whilst a “heart leader” commits themselves to grow more in order to transform along with those they lead. This is a direct link to Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership which suggests the commitment to growth (healing) is something that both the leader and the led share. At this point it strikes me I’ve heard much about headship and authority and much less about heartship and authenticity. Even my spellchecker doesn’t recognise the word "heartship". Time to redress the balance I think.

On the subject of emotional intelligence and emotional health I’d recommend a book called Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. Goleman (amongst others) has helped me tremendously on my own journey of the healing of my heart.

Before closing out with some of my thoughts on what it looks like to lead with the heart here’s what George and Sims have to say:

Authentic leaders lead with their hearts as well as their heads. To some, leading with the heart may sound soft, as though authentic leaders cannot make choices involving pain and loss. Leading with the heart is anything but soft. It means having passion for your work, compassion for the people you serve, empathy for the people you work with, and the courage to make difficult decisions. Courage is an especially important quality for leaders as they navigate through unpredictable terrain.


So what does leading with the heart look like contrasted to leading with the head?

Leading with the heart means balancing facts with feelings.

Those of you familiar with Myers Briggs will understand when I express this as a healthier balance between T and F.

Heart leaders are intuitive not just data driven.

They will allow their heart to rule their head. In Myers Briggs terms this is a healthier balance between N and S.

(Apologies to those of you who are not familiar Myers Briggs, but to those of you who are one of the things that has fascinated me over the years is the way in which my T/F and N/S scores have reflected the journey of my heart.)

Expanding on George and Sims’ emphasis:

Heart leaders care.

They allow themselves to feel. They allow themselves to express their feelings and allow those feelings to shape their decision making and how they implement those decisions. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this point. By no means does this mean they are unable to make difficult decisions. Over the years there have been a number of occasions when I have had to have difficult conversations- no more so than when you are explaining to the person in front of you there is no longer a role for them in the organisation. The first time I did it it was probably the hardest thing I’d ever done. I remember saying to my boss at the time how much I struggled because I cared about the people I was letting go. His response was: “Don’t stop caring. You are the right person for the job precisely because you do care.” Because heart leaders care it means they won’t just do the right thing they’ll do it in the right way. So often leadership obsesses about doing the right thing and forgets to do it the right way. The difference between doing the right thing in the right way and the wrong way is often the difference between success and failure. People don’t just have a moral compass that tells them what is the right thing todo they have an emotional compass that tells them what is the right way to do it. Heart leaders have an emotional compass and they are not afraid to use it to navigate themselves and those they lead.

Heart leaders are passionate.

Passion matters because it instils confidence, builds faith and generates momentum. When people are in their moment of greatest need the last thing they need is a leader with a principle what they need is a principled leader with passion. Passion is a fire that consumes fear and fuels belief in the hearts of people when they need it most. Whilst in the midst of change explanations are important because they help people to understand the journey, but passion is vital because it’s fuel for the journey. When the going gets tough, heart leaders get passionate.

Heart leaders are dreamers.

In the midst of the most hopeless situations they are hope bearers. This again is a direct link to Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, Greenleaf’s servant leaders are dreamers. Heart leaders nurture their own hopes and dreams and those of the people they lead. They know that people don’t just need an explanation for today they need a vision for tomorrow.

In signing off I acknowledge that in this post I have once again emphasised heart over head. I’m doing that intentionally to address what I consider to be an imbalance. Without diluting that emphasis I want to reassure you that I understand that leading is both a heart and a head journey. As a leader I pursue the hearts and minds of those I serve. The point I’m making here is so often leaders focus on the head and fail to make the 18 inch journey to the heart. Not so authentic leaders. They are in my words "heart leaders" or as George and Sims put it, they lead with the heart. If you consider yourself a leader then for the sake of those you lead, and without losing your head, find your heart and lead with it.

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