January 30, 2023
During the coronavirus pandemic, I remember visiting a local grocery store. The young woman working at the cash register looked as if she’d had a long shift. Panic-buying crowds had streamed into the store and every checkout was packed with customers and their overloaded trolleys trying to judge how long they might be waiting before they could return to the relative safety of their homes.
The unfamiliar fear and tension we all came to experience during the years of the pandemic was palpable.
In front of me in the queue was an older man who was becoming increasingly frustrated. There were all the tell-tale signs – loud sighs, looking at his watch, shuffling from side to side as he grew increasingly impatient to leave. Finally, he spoke.
He told the young worker, who could not have been more than twenty years old, that the policy of mandating face masks to be worn while shopping in the store was wrong. He stepped forward and moved closer to the young woman. He said, loudly, he would not be coming back to the store again. He wanted to shop somewhere that valued personal freedom.
Watching this unfold, I stepped forward – as did many others – feeling protective, ready to speak up on this young woman’s behalf.
We needn’t have been concerned.
The young woman, summoning more patience and respect for this customer than I felt at the time, calmly explained she also didn’t like wearing a mask. After a long shift it grew hot and rubbed on her skin. She explained she wore the mask because it kept everyone safe, including him. She explained that her grandmother lived at home with her, and she feared bringing COVID-19 home from work. She thanked the customer for helping keep her grandmother safe by wearing his mask as well.
In that moment this young woman was a leader. She exemplified what it means to leave a positive legacy through her words and actions. She didn’t have a title or business card and she didn’t have any followers to supervise. She was leading through the impact and influence she had on those around her. She influenced everyone who witnessed that exchange by role-modelling patience and grace.
In that moment – and remember, leadership is a series of moments – she left a legacy.
We urgently need to rethink how we define leadership. The concept of modern leadership is broader than simply thinking about our formal authority or positions of power. Just like the grocery store worker who calmly led in response to an angry customer during the pandemic, we are all role models to someone else. If we are a teacher, we role model leadership to our students. If we drive a bus, we role model leadership in the way we conduct ourselves with fellow motorists and our passengers.
Not everyone aspires to own the grocery store, become the school principal, or run the bus company, but they can still be a modern leader. Broadening the definition of leadership is not suggesting that everyone is a formal leader; I am not suggesting that we can all suddenly think of ourselves as the CEO. That would lead to chaos. But what is needed is a shift from the way we have thought of leaders for centuries, where we have viewed them as a finite resource.
Leadership is not a scarcity competition; everyone wins when we all lead well. A leader is anyone who can influence and impact others through their words, actions, and behaviours. A modern leader understands the most effective way to lead is by using their head and their heart.
When we think of leading with our “head”, it refers to the cognitive, rational, decision-making part of our brain. Doing so allows us to analyse complex data, weigh up risks and opportunities, create business strategies or write policies. Our head loves to focus on the tangible, find patterns and think about what can be measured and reviewed. It is a safe place for many of us because we can see, feel, and touch the work we produce.
These tangible ways of thinking about the world are reinforced during our education and working lives. We learn multiplication tables, facts, figures, formulas, and historical dates during our primary and secondary education. After school we might learn a trade or attend university to learn the skills we will need to pursue our chosen careers. At work, we are rewarded for the work we produce, the technical prowess we bring to our tasks and the way we build and expand our knowledge. We are set up from childhood to believe intellect and clear decision-making is the key to the leadership door.
However, humans are not and never have been, automatons. Leading with the heart is just as important for a modern leader as leading with our heads. The way we engage with others, the way we present our ideas, the way we encourage others to work harder and for longer all requires us to lead with our heart through humility, empathy, self-awareness, and courage.
Leading with our heart refers to how we view and are viewed by the world. Our heart, in a metaphorical sense, is where we process our emotions, feel a connection with others and develop our values. Leading with our heart may be difficult to see and measure but is equally important and what it produces impacts the way we interact and relate to others.
In my research with Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Business School I identified the attributes of leading with the head and heart. The four attributes of leading with the head are curiosity, wisdom, perspective, and capability. The four attributes of leading with the heart are humility, self-awareness, courage, and empathy. You can measure your own head and heart leadership by visiting www.headheartleader.com.
Until only very recently, we have been taught that our personal and professional worlds should be kept separate. It was only in 2017 that Professor Robert Kelly was famously interrupted by his two children and wife during a live interview with the BBC from his home. The intersection of our private lives on the public stage was still a novelty at the time and the footage went viral. Kelly assumed it was the end of his career. “I thought I’d blown it in front of the whole world,” he said.
Fast forward three years to the COVID-19 pandemic and interruptions of this kind became a daily occurrence. It is now unthinkable to expect anyone could worry about the impact of such an event on their careers.
Unrealistic expectations of leaders to have a professional persona, quite separate from how they may conduct themselves privately, have pervaded our working lives for centuries. This way of thinking about leaders comes at the cost of leaders being able to successfully integrate their leadership across all contexts in which they influence and impact others.
The idea that you can be one kind of leader at work – perhaps head-based and analytical, logical, capable, and unemotional – and then a different type of leader at home or with your community, is one that history has ingrained in us for centuries, but which needs to be firmly debunked. A modern leader understands both reason and emotion, or the head and heart, are important.
The key to mastering the art of being a modern leader is knowing what attributes of leading with the head and heart is needed, and when.
Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership (Penguin Random House, 2023) by Kirstin Ferguson is available now.