6 November 2023
In today’s world, we’re all leaders in various aspects of our lives. Effective leadership is crucial, whether at work, home, or in our communities. Kirstin Ferguson, a renowned leadership expert, author, and columnist, shares insights from her book ‘Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership,’ emphasizing the balance between analytical thinking (head) and emotional intelligence (heart) in leadership. If you’re a business leader seeking inspiration to become the kind of leader the world needs, this podcast is for you.
[00:00:01] Kimberly: Welcome to Pragmatism in Practice, a podcast from ThoughtWorks where we share stories of practical approaches to becoming a modern digital business. I’m your host, Kimberly Boyd, and I’m here with one of our keynote speakers, Kirstin Ferguson, author, columnist, company director, a 2021 Thinkers50 top 30 thinkers to watch, and an award-winning leadership expert and bestselling author of Head & Heart: the Art of Modern Leadership, which we’re here to talk about today. Welcome, Kirstin. We’re thrilled to have you joining us at Paradigm Shift this year.
[00:00:33] Kirstin: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.
[00:00:36] Kimberly: Without wanting to give anything away from the book, but entice our listeners to dive into it themselves, I was hoping we could just hit some of the highlights perhaps from Head & Heart. I know there was a specific story that inspired you to write the book, but maybe you could tell us a little bit more about why you believe the integration of Head & Heart is so crucial in today’s complex business landscape.
[00:01:01] Kirstin: I’d love to. And before all listeners decide to turn off because they think, “Not another leadership book,” because there are something like 60,000 leadership books out there, I just want to reassure you, I get it. I totally get it. Hang in there because this isn’t the usual, I would hope. In fact, that story that you are talking about is a story of Captain Will Swenson, an American marine captain. There was a moment in the Afghanistan war that was easily missed. I missed it, and happened to hear about something he became infamous for and then went down one of those many rabbit holes we do on the couch scrolling through Google.
[00:01:42] Kimberly: I got to find out more about this.
[00:01:43] Kirstin: Exactly. Going, “Hang on, what happened?” There’s a moment in what became known as the Battle of Ganjgal. It was a very infamous battle and a tragic battle where certainly many lives were lost. He was just 31 and he became an unexpected commander in that particular battle after one of the senior officers was injured very early in the attack.
What ended up happening over those seven hours was obviously lots of displays of bravery, courage, and all those things you’d expect of a marine captain, but there was a moment that was captured on the head cam of one of the US rescue helicopters crew that would otherwise have been missed. It’s this really tender compassionate moment where Captain Swenson puts one of his sergeants into the helicopter, sergeant’s been terribly injured, and gives him this kiss on the cheek.
[00:02:44] Kimberly: I read that. It like broke my heart. It was such a powerful image.
[00:02:47] Kirstin: It’s beautiful. You can Google that moment, Swenson’s kiss, and watch it. It really struck me as a moment of leadership because, so often, we focus– if we just think about Captain Swenson on that day, all of those acts of courage and bravery and how he commanded and controlled his environment on that day and saved people. In that single moment, and I truly believe that leadership is just a series of moments, he showed that he had true humility and self-awareness of the impact he was having on others, and obviously empathy as well.
I walked away from that, learning about everything I could from that moment, and started to think about leaders that we see around us who are just so different to leaders we’ve had in the past, but seem so right for now. For many of them, it’s because they’ve really been able to balance this idea of, “Leading with our head and our heart.” Obviously, that’s a metaphor, but it’s one that we can really easily understand. For modern leaders, for anyone listening today, of course, we’re not probably going to find ourselves in the situation Captains Swenson was in, but what we do find ourselves in every day are moments where we’re having an impact.
Those impacts are happening whether we like it or not, it’s just they’re either going to be positive or negative. I think there’s some ways that we can use all of the attributes we have as leaders across our lives, so at home, in our communities, and at work to be the leaders our businesses need tomorrow.
[00:04:27] Kimberly: Thank you for sharing that story. I think i very much encouraged folks to dig in more to it. It was my first introduction to that story and I know it’s going to be one that sticks with me for quite some time. When I was getting familiar with the concepts that you lay out in Heart & Head, I immediately defaulted to like, “Well, I would imagine most leaders are more head-driven than heart.” When you went into writing the book, did you have any of those hypotheses in mind and were there any big surprises as what you discovered?
[00:04:58] Kirstin: Yes. I have a need to, if I’m going to write a book, not just write it on anecdotes. While the story of Captain Swenson’s lovely, it hasn’t really got any empirical evidence as to what it looks like. I went and did research. I’m an adjunct professor at an Australian University and have a PhD in leadership and culture. What I wanted to do was understand, what are the attributes of that. What’s that secret sauce that when we see leaders who we just know get us, they just aren’t afraid to be themselves in whatever situation.
I came up with the eight attributes and then wanted to test those. I should say, for anyone listening, jump onto headheartleader.com and you can do a head/heart leader scale that we created. That’s where I’m going to talk about now, what some of that research showed. I think we can all imagine in our mind’s eyes someone who’s all head in the totally stereotypical form, whether it’s an engineer or an accountant, and it’s all about KPIs. Just as often, you can think of a leader who’s all heart and they might run a not-for-profit or they’re all about improving people’s lives and doing wonderful things. Neither is helpful as a leader. It’s just as unhelpful to be a leader who’s all heart or all head.
What this book’s about is really saying to either of those that, yes, it is needed. The skills you’ve got are absolutely valuable. You can’t be an accountant without knowing how to do a balance sheet. However, every single decision you make that forms that balance sheet has an impact on people or on decisions or on lives or livelihoods, perhaps ones you can’t even see. There’s a need to balance every decision with both the head and the heart and the art of modern leadership is knowing what’s needed and when.
I’ve been fortunate to be a leader for more than three decades now. In fact, I started my career in the military as well. Perhaps that’s why that story really resonated with me. Since then have done all sorts of different leadership roles, including chairing large companies. I know there’s occasions where, in fact, a balance isn’t exactly what’s called for.
I actually need a lot of decision-making, data, and evidence to really move forward, but I also need to recognize that, very quickly, the situation’s going to turn and I need perhaps a whole heap of humility about a decision I’ve made that didn’t go as planned, or if I’m reading the room and we should perhaps talk about that particular attribute of perspective because it’s the most important of the eight attributes.
That need to understand when things change, that is the critically important part of this art of being a modern leader. I think many of us have all of the skills, but not all of us are conscious of understanding the impact that we’re having on those around us, and as things are changing, how that impact is also changing and we need to adapt.
[00:08:04] Kimberly: Maybe we can jump in a little bit and talk about the attributes because you laid out in the book there’s the four key ones for head, there’s the four key ones for heart. I was curious if you had found that there was one that most leaders struggle with more than the others. I know you mentioned perspective.
[00:08:20] Kirstin: Yes. Funnily enough, wisdom’s one that I struggle with the most. When you go on and do the scale, they will rank the eight in order of strengths for you. Number one for me is humility, but then that always makes me cringe a bit because we are our own worst judges of humility. That’s never what I’m particularly. I’m always second-guessing.
[00:08:43] Kimberly: I’m super humble.
[00:08:44] Kirstin: I think the second you say you’re humble, obviously you’re not, but my lowest strength of attribute is wisdom. That’s all-around decision-making. I’m very quick to make decisions, but wisdom in this context’s all about gathering data and evidence and really weighing up a decision before you make it.
[00:09:03] Kimberly: I feel like I might be similar to you on that scale. I’ve not taken it yet. I’m waiting till tomorrow.
[00:09:07] Kirstin: My husband has great joy in– that’s his number one. Maybe that’s what makes us a good pair after how many years.
[00:09:13] Kimberly: You’re striking that balance.
[00:09:14] Kirstin: Yes. I think of the eight, and there are four head and four heart, the four head are curiosity, which is no real surprise. For most people, that is their number one. We’ve now had 16,000 people do the scale since January, and that continues to be the most highly scored attribute. Interestingly though, even though most of us say we value curiosity, one study found that 92% of us or something do. 24% of people actually get to experience, I should say, curiosity at work. That’s a terrifying statistic if you’re a leader listening.
[00:09:55] Kimberly: Well, then talk a little bit about what that means to experience curiosity.
[00:09:59] Kirstin: Anyone listening should be thinking, do you actually get to feel curious, because the more or the longer we’re in a role, the less curious we start to feel. If you work somewhere where there’s a lot of bureaucracy, tends to dampen out innovation and curiosity. If you work somewhere that it’s not really safe to speak up and ask the dumb questions or ask any questions, then that’s likely to help dampen curiosity as well. Curiosity is one that to me is a bit of a no-brainer. Of course, we should feel curious, but unfortunately many of us at work–
[00:10:33] Kimberly: We want to feel that way. We’re not getting the opportunity to enact it.
[00:10:34] Kirstin: We don’t necessarily feel that way. The second head-based attribute’s wisdom, which I spoke about before, and also capability, which is a bit like growth mindset. It’s really having the capability to do something, but also believing you can. The fourth one that I want to really focus on in the head is called perspective. Now, this is another term for reading a room. Of all eight attributes, including those of the heart, this one correlated the most highly with all the other attributes.
Basically, if you score highly in perspective, you’re more likely to score highly in all of the others as well. Perspective is basically reading a room, and it’s not just obviously a physical room, or it might be, but it’s obviously your organization, your industry, or the greater world, whatever it is that you are operating in. Importantly, you don’t just interpret the signals and what’s going on in your room, you notice who’s missing from the room as well. That’s incredibly important. For diversity and inclusion in particular, you notice whose voices you are not hearing from and you’ll do something about it.
I think that skill when you said, “Is there something that people struggle with?” I think knowing what room you’re in is important and then knowing what you want that room to look like is also critically important. They were the four head-based attributes. Most people, we’re comfortable when we are thinking about the head because it’s tangible. It’s generally what we did well at school, and we get promoted on. We’ve got–
[00:12:06] Kimberly: Kind of the expected attributes.
[00:12:07] Kirstin: Yes. I think organizations tend to over-index on the head because it is easy to measure. That’s a challenge because it means we’re not getting well-rounded leaders. The four heart-based attributes are things like humility, which I spoke about before, which is incredibly important for leaders, but also really difficult if you’re in environments where being prepared to say you don’t know is a fatal flaw. That happens all too often.
[00:12:37] Kimberly: I think we’ve been taught for so long that leaders weren’t supposed to say that, right?
[00:12:40] Kirstin: That’s right. It was ingrained in us for centuries that leaders needed to be all-knowing, have the answers, and somehow be coming from down on high with a solution. That’s not the reality. Every leader knows that they don’t actually know all the time. Humility, and intellectual humility, in particular, is very important. Then self-awareness. I think without self-awareness, all of this is for naught. If you’ve already switched off, you’re perhaps thinking you’ve already got leadership down pat, which means you’re self-awareness perhaps, but they’re no longer listening. To those of you who are still listening, I’m very grateful.
[00:13:19] Kimberly: Give you a check for self-awareness.
[00:13:20] Kirstin: Yes, a big check because even the most accomplished leaders get it wrong all the time. We’re always making mistakes, and having an understanding of that impact we’re having on others is critically important. Then there’s two more, one being courage. That’s the courage to speak up in the face of pressure not to do so and doing so anyway in things you believe in. That’s all around psychological safety and creating those environments. Then, finally, empathy. We hear a lot about empathy, particularly since the pandemic.
It’s not taking on others’ feelings. It’s not compassionate pity. It’s really being able to seek out and try to put yourself in the shoes of someone with a lived experience quite different to your own. I think, for some leaders, they perhaps don’t even realize there’s lived experiences beyond their own, and that’s a challenge. For those modern leaders that we want to have in our organizations, like the person who’s reading the room, noticing who’s missing, that actually correlates. Perspective and empathy are very closely related. There’s the eight attributes that my research came up with. I often get asked if there’s a gender difference. I’m not sure [crosstalk]
[00:14:33] Kimberly: Yes. Is there? Let us know.
[00:14:36] Kirstin: Yes. We just reanalyzed the data after 12,000 surveys. I must admit, I had a stereotypical view that I thought perhaps it’d be more men identifying as head-based leaders and women as heart. Not at all. There’s actually zero material difference between how men and women identify.
[00:14:56] Kimberly: Very interesting, but also good to hear.
[000:14:58] Kirstin: Yes. I thought that really debunked that myth. It’s definitely a way of thinking about leadership that applies to all.
[00:15:06] Kimberly: Thank you so much for kind of giving us a walkthrough of those attributes. You had mentioned that it’s not good to be all head or all heart. We really want that balance. Can you share some insights for how leaders can strike that right balance? What are some of the things they can look to do to bring that head and heart more to parity?
[00:15:29] Kirstin: This is where you’re not an island, so it’s pretty hard to do this without having trusted people around you that you can give feedback. A modern leader is aware that, even if they’re trying to calibrate their leadership and whether or not it’s working, we will only have one sort of interpretation of what’s going on. You really need people around you that are prepared to give you feedback.
I think having the ability to ask for feedback is a critically important skill that every modern leader has. It sounds trite to say that, but just think about the leaders you know who never ask you for feedback. They’re probably a leader who isn’t someone who’s focused on the impact they’re having. They’re not particularly so forward [crosstalk]
[00:16:16] Kimberly: They’re not scoring high on the self-awareness.
[00:16:18] Kirstin: No, they’re not. They’re frustrating to deal with because I know I’ve worked with leaders where I think, “Oh, if I could just someone,” whether it’s me or someone else tell you that when we’re in meetings, “Could you just stop talking over the top of everyone?” Perhaps they don’t even realize it. I know I’ve been in situations where I’ve then had the courage to speak up and give feedback, and either the person is totally unprepared to accept it or argues or whatever, and so you never try again. Don’t be that leader.
We’re really wanting to be leaders who, even if you hear feedback that doesn’t quite gel with your experience of yourself, it’s still so important to stay present and to hear it, to thank them, and to perhaps then go and test it with someone else, but never, ever argue about it because that’s going to make sure that you’ll never get feedback again. I think feedback, while for many it causes you to want to run away as soon as you hear someone say, “Can I give you some feedback?” it can trigger a lot in ourselves. It’s really, really important to make sure that you’re able to stay present.
I know I was CEO of a group of psychologists for many years. We had a true feedback culture where anyone could give me feedback as a CEO anytime, and there were days where I’d have someone else say, “Can I give you some feedback? Internally I’m thinking, “Oh my god, not again,” but it really taught me the value of hearing it, of valuing it, not necessarily acting on it, but never dismissing it and never being arrogant enough to think that my view of myself was worth any more than what this person had had the courage to come and tell me.
I think that is that kind of humility that we talk about that you need as leader, but then with your head, what are you going to do about it? Is it something you actually need to do differently? Do you need to go and get some other perspectives?
[00:18:23] Kimberly: Hearing you talk about that experience, in my mind, I said immediately, “Well, that’s why she scored high in humility,” because you had that experience. Of course that was going to be a result.
[00:18:30] Kirstin: You get enough feedback. You’re pretty humble.
[00:18:32] Kimberly: Exactly, exactly. I know the book has just come out this past year and fantastic that that many folks have taken the survey already. Do you have a view if, over time, a leader’s position on that scale is fixed? Is it possible for someone to become more of a heart-based leader versus a head?
[00:18:54] Kirstin: Totally, totally. In fact, you can do the scale today, do it in a month’s time, and it’ll be different. It’s a self-assessment and it can be influenced by what you are dealing with that day. There’s plenty of research that shows if you work in really cognitive-based tasks, which lots of people in tech do coding and different development work, which is really on your own a lot of the time, then you’re not practicing empathy as much. You’re not using that muscle. You might find that that’s on your scale a bit lower because of that role. But you go and change jobs, I don’t know, go and work in a call center dealing with people’s issues all day.
[00:19:34] Kimberly: And that’s all you’re doing.
[00:19:35] Kirstin: All you’re doing, and suddenly, your scale’s going to be quite different. We’re all capable of learning, changing, and adapting. Even with my knowledge that my wisdom score could be perhaps doing a little better, then that means I need to be conscious that next time I’m making a decision really weighing up. In fact, I can think of one this morning where I jumped in and did something. If I had just spent maybe a few more minutes thinking through, “Okay, well if that happens, that’ll happen, and this could happen–“
[00:20:07] Kimberly: Wisdom and patience are closely correlated, it sounds like.
[00:20:11] Kirstin: It probably would’ve served me better. It’s something we’re all working on all the time.
[00:20:17] Kimberly: One of the things I really liked from the book too is you have lots of great stories and examples from what I’ll call more traditional leaders in the book, but you also highlight examples of people who– and emphasize a point that there are many types of leaders out there, parents are leaders, and folks doing community work are leaders. They might not traditionally think of themselves that way, but they should. Can you talk a little bit about how the Head/Heart tool might be beneficial for someone who doesn’t necessarily see themselves as a leader in a traditional sense?
[00:20:49] Kirstin: I’m so glad you raised that because that’s the other big argument in my book, is reminding everyone that we’re all leaders. It’s incredible to me that there’s people I interview in that book and I really wanted to get a diverse range of leaders, from traditional, as you said, the CEO of BHP, one of the world’s largest companies, right through to writers, activists, and an academic who–
The academic I know is a leader in every single context, even by definition out of the dictionary, yet she didn’t see herself as a leader when I first spoke to her because, in her mind, she thought you needed to be the boss. I think that is reflective of a lot of views that we’ve had, again, ingrained in us for many years. The idea that parents– they’re leaders. They’re leading a family. Nurses are leading in how they conduct themselves. There’s a story again in the book about a supermarket checkout worker.
[00:21:54] Kimberly: I loved that story. That was a great one. A very timely one too, that I think.
[00:21:58] Kirstin: Yes. It was a moment that I observed during the pandemic, and she was dealing with a really difficult customer. She was only 19 or 20, the most junior person in her organization. In that moment, even though all of us almost stepped in to defend her, we didn’t need to because she conducted herself as a leader with such grace, patience, and respect for this person. I won’t go into details, but it was a real reminder that everyone has the capacity to lead in those moments.
I think we need to remind everyone that they’re leading in some capacity. All of us are having an impact on those around us through the words we use, the behaviors we role model, and the choices we make. They’re all having a leadership impact. We can either deliberately choose that that impact is a positive one or just continue through life, not really thinking about it and having perhaps a negative impact.
[00:22:57] Kimberly: We need to make leadership a inclusive thing.
[00:23:00] Kirstin: Very much so.
[00:23:01] Kimberly: Versus what it’s traditionally been. Kirstin, just one more question for you. You mentioned that so much of leadership is really about moments. Maybe you could share with us what– you’ve had a lot of leadership roles and opportunities. What was a particularly impactful moment in your leadership journey that showcased the power of Heart & Head?
[00:23:26] Kirstin: Oh, that’s a really good question. I have had lots of different times where I’ve needed to use a lot of heart where someone who perhaps is working for me that’s going through a difficult time. I think the one that comes to mind that perhaps your listeners might not be aware of, but in 2018, I was asked by the Australian Prime Minister to become the acting chair of our ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is our public broadcaster. It was a very high-profile position, but under an enormous amount of pressure at the time because there were significant leadership changes that had happened.
I remember that being a moment where I knew it was going to be a significant one where I really needed to use all my head-based skills and really draw on my ability to work through a very challenging time, but couldn’t do that without also using all of my attributes of the heart.
As difficult as that was for quite some period, it was one that I think had I not been self-aware of what was going on for myself and for others in such a high-pressure situation, it perhaps wouldn’t have been as successful outcome, if I can call it that, in terms of just navigating through that period and needing to have a great deal of empathy and humility. I think all of us have moments where you really have to step up. In those times, I’d really encourage you. Whatever it is. It doesn’t need to be as significant as that. It might be that you just dealing with a difficult family situation where you really–
[00:25:09] Kimberly: A moment in the grocery store.
[00:25:11] Kirstin: Yes, exactly. Or you’ve got to care for elderly parents and the siblings are having to work through those kind of issues. Whatever it is, you’re going to need to really master that art of modern leadership and know which of those attributes will be needed and when.
[00:25:30] Kimberly: I couldn’t agree more. On that note, Kirstin, it’s been such a delight being able to speak with you about Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership, and very excited to hear your keynote at Paradigm Shift Thanks so much for being with us today.
[00:25:49] Kirstin: Thank you. It’s been such a pleasure.
[00:25:52] Kimberly: Thanks so much for joining us for this episode of Pragmatism in Practice. If you’d like to listen to similar podcasts, please visit us at thoughtworks.com/podcast. Or if you had enjoyed the show, help spread the word by rating us on your preferred podcast platform.
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