6 September 2023
“We are no longer looking for all-knowing, command and control leaders of the past. These traditional leaders are no longer fit for purpose and frequently fail to put people at the center of their decision-making. These leaders, who often see themselves as the smartest person in the room, are unable to adapt to new ways of working and resist seeking diverse points of view.” That’s what author Kirstin Ferguson told me when we recently discussed her new book Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership.
Ferguson’s research identified that the best leaders combined both head-based attributes (curiosity, wisdom, perspective and capability) with heart-based attributes (humility, self-awareness, courage and empathy). Great leaders blend and alternate these attributes as needed, and she tells me, “The ‘art’ of modern leadership is knowing what is needed and when.”
Interestingly, of those eight head and heart attributes, perspective is the one that’s most highly correlated with all other head and heart attributes. Unlike the leaders who see themselves as the smartest person in the room, Ferguson notes that “Leading with perspective is all about being able to ‘read a room,’ which means understanding the context you are leading in whether it be a physical room, your organization, your industry or the world. It also means you are looking for who is missing from the room and what is going on outside the room as well.”
That brings us to the word-to-wisdom ratio, which Ferguson developed to pinpoint the leaders who truly lacked perspective. Someone who thinks they’re the smartest person in the room won’t often say those words exactly, but they’ll often be talking more than anyone else. They may say much, but there will be little wisdom contained in their words.
“People who think they’re the smartest in the room just fill the space,” Ferguson notes. “They fill the entire entity with their own advice, their own solutions, and leave no room for anyone else. I think many leaders have been brought up to believe that leaders needed to be those all-knowing people who had an answer for everything. But they failed to realize they could build a huge amount of trust by actually saying, ‘I don’t know,’ or, ‘Tell me what I need to know.’ There are a number of leaders, both junior and senior, who are too afraid to try that.”
Seeking out and listening to diverse perspectives seems to be a fairly widespread issue; a recent Leadership IQ study found that only 27% of employees say their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement.
Talking much and saying little might be one of the defining characteristics of our age. But leaders face an even deeper challenge. Schools, colleges, promotion systems, remuneration, etc., are largely based on leading with our heads. Traditionally, leaders who’ve reached the top of organizations have had technical expertise and industry contacts. They’ve known the product inside out.
“But often they’re lacking in the ability to be humble leaders, to be self-aware of the impact they’re having on others, to build environments where people feel courageous enough to speak up about things that aren’t going well,” says Ferguson. “Our structures have encouraged leading with the head more than learning and rewarding those leaders who focus on heart-based skills, but modern leaders integrate both. They know that one isn’t any more important than the other.”