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4 Traits That Will Separate Real Leaders From the Pretenders

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Marcel Schwantes

19 September 2023

This award-winning leadership expert says we must rely on these attributes to be effective.

Today’s leaders understand it is nearly impossible to make critical, data-driven decisions without also considering the human cost of the decision.

While the “head” skills of leadership are certainly important to move a business forward, unless leaders also lead with their heart and focus on people and emotions, they won’t reach their full potential.

According to a new book called Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership by award-winning leadership expert Kirstin Ferguson, every leadership situation, context, or conversation requires leaders to draw on skills from both the head and heart to be the most influential modern leader they can be.

Ferguson conducted research in collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology Business School, wherein she developed the Head & Heart Leader Scale. This research helped identify eight key attributes that are essential for leading with both the head and heart.

These attributes are divided into two categories: head-based attributes, which include curiosity, wisdom, perspective, and capability; and heart-based attributes, which include humility, self-awareness, courage, and empathy.

All great leaders share these eight essential attributes. The trick is knowing when to apply them. Let’s explore four of them — two from the head and two from the heart.


We lead with wisdom when we consciously (or unconsciously) assess what is known and unknown, weigh up risk and reward, search for data or evidence, and then assess the best possible path forward.

“Leading with wisdom is more than the accumulation of information and instead is about using information in a way that allows us to listen to others to evaluate what they say and decide on the best way forward,” says Ferguson.

We can lose our ability to lead with wisdom if we fail to realize our limitations, fear rejection, and therefore reject other people’s perspectives, or when we fall victim to the endless search for data. To lead with wisdom, we must be mindful of our decision-making processes, reflect on our past mistakes, and find a purpose beyond ourselves.


We lead with perspective when we understand the environment or context in which we are leading and make decisions on the best path forward. We seek to see a few steps ahead and understand the implications of findings before weighing up the best way forward.

Ferguson says, “Perspective is a leadership skill that helps us find a unifying order even when one does not exist. It provides us with an ability to perceive the nature of what is happening as it unfolds.”

In other words, leading with perspective is the ability to “read the room,” whether it is a literal room, our company, our industry, or beyond. It also means we can see who is missing from the room and what is happening outside the room. 


When we lead with humility, we are willing to seek out the contributions of others, and we can accept our limitations. We understand some things are beyond our control, we are open and grateful for new ideas, and we are willing and eager to receive the contributions of those around us without seeing it as a weakness.

A humble leader encourages learning from others by drawing attention to the strengths of those around them and puts effort and attention into listening, observing, and learning through doing. It takes a humble leader to be quick to learn from their mistakes and support others when they make their own.

Further, Ferguson says, “Humble leaders fundamentally understand what they are good at, and when they are likely to be the least experienced in the room.”


We lead with courage when we speak up for what we believe in, even in the face of pressure not to do so. Leading with courage means we create psychologically safe cultures where others feel able to speak up as well. Leading with courage means we can recognize when we need to speak up for the benefit of ourselves and others.

“By leading with courage,” Ferguson states, “we can build relationships by responding with action and commitment to violations of the rights of others or by showing a willingness to take the risks necessary to help facilitate a positive outcome.”

Courageous actions at work can be small and subtle and might include things like taking on a promotion you don’t feel ready for, giving feedback to someone on their performance, starting a new business, or speaking up about a colleague’s inappropriate conduct.

Leading with our head and heart, in every context, maximizes our chances of leaving a positive impact on those around us.

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