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Why the best leaders balance the head and the heart

Leadership is messy. Every day there are relationships, interactions and dances that go on in offices, meeting rooms and virtual rooms that don’t fall neatly into a spreadsheet or graph. Leading in the messy middle of that is hard work. The so-called ‘soft skills’ are the hardest of all and take the most time and energy. Our ability to lead with balance and calmness can be a daily challenge. In my work with leaders during the last fifteen years, I have seen that the best leadership is a constant dance of cognitive and emotional skills, the head and the heart. It helps lift outcomes and achieve results by building strong cultures of connection, learning and improvement, aligned with a clear vision and actions that achieve outcomes. Results AND relationships – not one over the other.

The best leaders understand nuance. Many moments of a day require a leader to contextualise, analyse and decide the next course of action. These leaders know that these adaptive moments create long-term impact and that the effect can be negative or positive. Impact on the bottom line, the client’s requirements, the key measures of success. Just as importantly, the impact on culture, wellbeing, and relationships. It requires us to draw from our results-oriented cognitive function of logic, process and strategy, and the relationship-oriented emotional functions of empathy, insight, and connection. The integration of both the strategic and emotional creates leadership that elevates us out of status quo, and mediocrity into leading transformation. I call it Ferocious Warmth Leadership – leadership that pulls from the head and the heart, not one over the other. One without the other causes imbalance and negatively impacts the people we work with and the outcomes we seek.

Head vs Heart

Self-awareness of where our leadership lies is the first step in seeing where balance may be needed. Are you more results and head driven by default? Or more relationship and heart driven? Ferocious Warmth is all about understanding where to draw from a blend of both. When we are stressed, flat out and stretched, we tend to move to our default for ease.

Head-driven leaders aim for results in many of the performance measurements that are used as ‘hard data’. They put task before people. Head-driven leaders rely on compliance more than collaboration to reach goals. They work from a logic base in their decision making and can struggle with building trust and having appropriate levels of empathy for others. Their listening lens is generally from an objective, critique approach and they can be addicted to being right.

Heart-driven leaders put people before task. They provide a culture of support and empathy for those they lead and create high trust through warmth and connection. For heart-driven default leaders, maintaining goodwill and harmony can trump the need for good robust dialogue, hard decisions and shift. Heart-driven leaders can struggle with holding people to account and increase ambiguity through unclear expectations. They can be addicted to being liked.

Now let’s take these defaults to their extremes. In every team I have worked with there is someone with experience of these two types of unhealthy leadership. Fearsome leadership, which is all head and no heart, can create environments of fear, shut down and compliance culture. Enmeshed leadership, which is all heart with no head, can create environments of rescuing, avoidance and lack of boundaries.

Our challenge is staying in balance when the going gets tough and ensuring the blend is right. When we’re at our best, ferocity and warmth, results and relationships, head and heart are not polarities but nest inside each other. Astute impact-focussed leaders know that the recipe is not the ‘head’ or the ‘heart’, but a blend of these. Knowing when to lift the bar, learning when to listen deeply and hold the space. This is the magic of the Ferocious Warmth leader. These leaders believe that relationships are the critical piece. This focus certainly doesn’t mean they ignore getting the work done. The work is their driving purpose. But they are cognisant of the need to move beyond the ‘technical’ head parts of leadership and into ‘feeling’ heart space – the empathy, connection and humanness of leading.

Tracey Ezard is a keynote speaker, author and leadership and team mentor. Her Ferocious Warmth leadership framework and collaborative learning culture framework, The Buzz, help leaders build psychologically safe environments that create quality results and quality relationships.


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