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A Scientific Approach To Leading With Both Head And Heart

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13 September 2023

It sounds good, but how to put it into practice? A look at the four leadership attributes one uses to lead with both head and heart.

Thinking about the head and heart in a leadership context can’t include the literal qualities or capacities metaphors ascribe them, but studies have shown that people don’t just talk in metaphors, but think in them too.

Researchers asked participants in a study to self-identify which body part they most closely associated with: their head or their heart. They found that those who primarily identified with the heart – 52 percent of participants – paid greater attention to their emotions. They characterized themselves as warmer people, they scored higher on agreeableness, said they were more likely to solve dilemmas in an emotional manner, and they were more emotionally reactive to daily stressors.

The people who identified as primarily head-based – 48 percent of participants – said they enjoyed intellectual challenges more than others, were more logical, had greater general knowledge, were better at intellectual tasks, and had higher grade point averages (GPAs) in their university results.

Those results intuitively made sense, but then the study got really interesting. Next, the researchers randomly selected the same participants and asked them to answer general knowledge questions. As they were answering, the participants were instructed to either physically place their hand on their head (closest to their brain) or to hold their hand over their chest (closest to their heart).

Those who put their hands on their heads saw improved intellectual problem solving. The people who held their hands over the hearts while they answered the questions placed more emphasis on emotional factors in their decision-making. The physical act of placing a hand near either the head or the heart played a role in how questions were answered.

Understanding the value of leading with the head and heart in theory is one thing. But what does this look like in practice? What leadership attributes do you use to lead with the head and heart?

Four Leadership Attributes of the Head and Heart

Using quantitative research and academic literature, I have identified four leadership attributes that are the key ingredients for a modern leader.

I began by investigating the existing literature to identify those leadership concepts most frequently associated with leaders who are seen as highly capable and emotionally intelligent. Before confirming the eight attributes, I wanted to empirically test their validity. In conjunction with Professor Lisa Bradley at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Business School, the Head & Heart Leader Scale was developed.

Essentially, head-based attributes include curiosity, wisdom, perspective and capability.Heart-based attributes include humility, self-awareness, courage and empathy. Testing these attributes to develop the scale confirmed their validity.

1. Leading with perspective has a special quality. Being able to lead with perspective is highly correlated with a leader who has high levels of empathy, capability and self- awareness. Of all eight attributes, perspective has a special quality that, when utilized and developed, allows you to be an empathetic leader who is also capable and self-aware. Chapter 6 explores what it means to lead with perspective in much greater detail.

2. Being aware of your limitations is key. Being aware of your limitations is a key skill for modern leaders and strongly correlates with all eight head and heart attributes. This is because being aware of your limitations means you are more likely to be curious about other answers, humble about your inability to know everything and self-aware of your abilities.

3. Be prepared to challenge your own assumptions. Leaders who self-assess as being willing to challenge what they thought they knew are more likely to be leaders who self-assess as being courageous and having high levels of empathy. This is because they are willing to accept they don’t know everything and are willing to seek out the views of others that may be quite different to theirs.

4. Always be open to the ideas of others. Our research shows that if you self-assess as being open to the ideas of others, you are likely to also have high levels of perspective, empathy and curiosity. This is because modern leaders value diverse points of view, are curious about things they may not understand, and they know that to make the best decision they must be able to ‘read the room’ and incorporate many different perspectives.

For all the leadership experiences we might have, the different teams we lead, the different ways we seek to lead in formal or informal ways – all of it comes down to knowing how and when to best lead with our heads and our hearts.  This is the art of modern leadership.

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