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Modern leaders steering with their head and heart

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Ginger Gorman

November 3, 2022

Who is the kind of modern leader we need to elect, reward, and celebrate? Through the uncertainty of the past few years, revolving doors of leaders in some governments around the world, and the emergence of leaders that do not fit the traditional mold (think Volodymyr Zelensky, Jacinda Ardern or even Greta Thunberg), it is clear our expectations of leaders across politics, business and even in our families has changed. 

Leadership expert Dr Kirstin Ferguson, has conducted extensive research into modern leadership and uncovered the essential ingredients for our times. She’s put it all into a new book called, Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership. In this chat, BroadAgenda editor, Ginger Gorman, asked Kirstin to put a gender lens over leadership. 

Most people think they know what leadership is. But a cynic would say we so rarely see it in action. How do you define it? 

We see leadership in action every day but dismiss it as not being from the type of leaders we ordinarily reward and celebrate. Since at least the nineteenth century, when the non-ironically Great Man theory first burst onto the scene. We were taught that leadership was only capable of being demonstrated by men (and not even all men – just privileged, powerful, white men). As a result, we still tend to think of leaders as only being those men (or now, some women) in formal positions of authority, with fancy titles, power and influence. 

Leaders are found among us every day. Parents, teachers, nurses, shopkeepers, farmers…everyone is a leader in their own way.

Of course, the sphere of influence will be different to that of someone leading the country, but we all impact those around us through the words we use, the behaviours we role model and the choices we make every day. 

The leaders we desperately need most in the world are those able to lead with both their head and their heart – curious, capable leaders who put people at the centre of their decision-making and who are not afraid to lead with humility and empathy. Leaders who understand they need to integrate the leadership they show at work with the leadership they show in their families and community. 

Why did you write a book about it? What’s the gap you’re trying to fill? 

The genesis of this book came through the experience of the pandemic as we saw traditional leaders, used to leading through command and control, flailing when they could not easily lead with empathy and compassion.

We also saw unexpected leaders emerge, those who were prepared to be decisive and act in the face of little information as they balanced that with a self-awareness of the impact their leadership would have on others. The latter group were the modern leaders that made people feel safe in times of uncertainty. 

Leadership is simply a series of moments, and every moment is an opportunity to leave a positive legacy in your wake. Many leadership books focus only on the most senior, formal leaders among us, the stereotype built by the Great Man theory of the past. Those leaders are incredibly important, of course, but I wanted to write a book that is literally for anyone regardless of any formal position you may hold.  

These are uncertain times – and we’re looking for a different kind of leader that we were perhaps 50 or even five years ago. You say we need modern leaders who can lead with their head and heart. Unpick this for me. Why? 

Thinking about modern leaders made me want to understand the leadership attributes common to them. I did a considerable amount of academic research on current thinking about emotionally intelligent and highly capable leaders and wanted to be able to articulate and measure modern leadership; that is, those able to lead with the head and heart.

I identified eight attributes of modern leadership which are – curiosity, wisdom, perspective and capability (head based leadership attributes) and humility, self-awareness, courage and empathy (heart based leadership attributes). The ‘art’ of modern leadership is understanding how to use those attributes in the right way at the right time.

BroadAgenda is a platform focused on gender equity. You’ve interviewed some extraordinary female leaders in your book (although it’s a book for everyone!). How did you select them as interviewees? What insights did they bring?

I really wanted to interview and incredibly diverse range of people to highlight the point that we are all leaders. I spoke to people running some of the largest companies in the world through to schoolteachers and activists – all their stories will surprise, challenge and amaze you. 

When I spoke with Sally McManus, Secretary of the ACTU, we spoke about what it was like to say something many saw as incredibly controversial in an interview which then made front pages of newspapers for weeks afterwards. Professor Megan Davis and I spoke about what it was like to co-lead the Uluru Dialogues and how she navigated that moment in Australian history.

I spoke with Professor Tanya Monro about the role of music in her leadership as Australia’s Chief Defence Scientist and to investigative journalist Jess Hill about the role of self-awareness in her work on violence against women and children. Other women I spoke to include the QLD Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll, barrister Jane Needham, media owner Mia Freedman, lawyer and human rights advocate Nyadol Nyuon, Salesforce APAC CEO, Pip Marlow and many others.

Who did you learn the most from? What surprised you most?

I remember interviewing Professor Clare Wright very early in the book and she insisted she was not a leader. She couldn’t quite understand why I might want to speak to her. For Clare, like so many others, notions of leadership had always been tied up in stereotypes of formal, corporate positions with power and authority. Sure that this was evidence she was not a leader, she proudly told me she had never read a leadership book.

I remember asking her if she had ever read a parenting book (she had not) and we soon laughed about how that hardly made her any less of a parent. 

I think Clare is typical of many people, especially women, who think leadership is for someone else. Clare is a Professor of History and Public Engagement at Latrobe University. She is also an award-winning historian, author, documentary film maker, podcaster, and broadcaster. By most people’s standards she is a leader but, again like many, the persistent tropes of the Great Man theory remain. 

How do female and non-binary leaders differ from male leaders in style and technique (and whatever other attributes you might like to add)?

I argue that all leaders, regardless of gender, need to lead with the eight attributes of head and heart leadership. From my experience both as a leader myself, a researcher and in my coaching work, I do think women are naturally more skilled and capable at leading with the heart.

Women can see the strength in leading with humility and are well practiced at it, often through having had to defer to self-effacing language in the past to survive in male-dominated environments. 

Ultimately though, leading with the heart is not enough. As modern leaders we need to be able to lead with head-based attributes as well so the ‘art’ of modern leadership for all of us is knowing what attributes you will need to draw upon and when.

Is there anything else you want to say?

To accompany the book, in conjunction with QUT Business School I have built a free online tool to self-assess your own head and heart leadership. It will take you about 5 minutes to complete. You will then receive a free, personalised report. 

Dr Kirstin Ferguson is an author, columnist, and company director. She is the former Acting Chair and Deputy Chair of the ABC and an Adjunct Professor at QUT Business School.

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