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May 2020

Business, Consulting

The Head and Heart of Leadership

There are many who write and talk about “head and heart” in leadership. I hope that this blog stimulates discussion and thought for you. Writing it has certainly helped me to bring further clarity to my own thinking about leadership.

Head and Heart leadership has been a strong focus of my own leadership style for as long as I can remember. To be truthful, at the time I didn’t think of it in that way, in fact I don’t think I thought about it at all. It just seemed ‘the right thing to do’ and ‘the right way to do it’. It was purely intuitive and definitely not planned.

The first time I recall being made aware of my ‘style’ was when I was a newly appointed Director of Nursing at a hospital in Melbourne. It had been alleged by a patient that a member of staff had been physically abusive to them. This type of complaint was very rare (phew) and, looking back on it now, it was a big thing to deal with in my first senior leadership role. It could have gone horribly wrong…

This complaint obviously triggered an investigation into the matter and included a meeting with the staff member. Fortunately, the staff member brought their union representative along with them. During the meeting, the staff member agreed that the patient accusation was correct and that they had done what was alleged. This amounted to serious misconduct and appropriate action was taken in accordance with the organisations’ disciplinary procedures (ie termination of employment). We discussed this in detail at the meeting and next steps were outlined by me and agreed by the staff member. Following the meeting, the union rep made the following statement and it has stuck with me forever.

“Just before we finish, I want to acknowledge how fair and kind you have been today and I want to thank you for that. It is very rare to come to a meeting which is managed the way you have done it, despite the nature of the issue and the outcome for xx (staff member).”

I was stunned – it isn’t common to have such feedback when essentially terminating someone’s employment. I did not (and still don’t) regard my management of this incident as anything special – it was just the right way to do it as far as I was concerned. This was a very serious incident and resulted in someone losing their job. They had done the wrong thing, no question. But that did not warrant or give me license to be unfair, unreasonable or even unkind to the staff member.

Since then, there have been many other sources of feedback which have reflected appreciation for me remaining kind, people-focussed and respectful (behaving with “heart”) whilst also ensuring that the business needs and accountabilities are fulfilled (“head”). Each time, I have felt somewhat awkward about receiving such feedback and have frequently commented that I don’t think we, as leaders “should get brownie points for being kind. Kindness and respect should be a given”. Apparently though, it isn’t a given for many. I’m really curious about this and have often pondered why it is that some leaders don’t bring heart to their leadership. Is it that they see it as “soft” and therefore, a bad or “weak” thing? Is it because to bring heart to leadership we must show something of ourselves and perhaps this creates a vulnerability that some leaders can’t accept?

There are definitely risks associated with too much of one or the other. Look at any organisation where the leader preferences being “liked” and neglects to ensure that the business performs, and look at any organisation where the people are “invisible” to the leaders and the business outcomes are the priority. Both look different, but I (and many others) argue that neither style will achieve sustained, longer term success.

There’s certainly a challenge in finding our own, unique ‘sweet spot’ – where we balance both head and heart.

I am absolutely convinced that a balance of both “head” and “heart” are essential components for any leader to be successful over time. So convinced that in my new series of workshops entitled “Conversations With The Curious”, the first session will focus on this directly.

I’m curious about what you think about head and heart of leadership and welcome your thoughts and views!

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