The Importance of Heart in Leadership Importance of Heart in Leadership
head and heart

In “triple crown leadership,” our framework for how to build organizations that are excellent, ethical, and enduring, both head and heart are required for exceptional leadership. In most workplaces, it’s almost all head power. We need much more heart power in leadership.

The way most leaders go about identifying and developing talent is utterly insufficient for what is needed to create a triple crown organization. They focus mostly on the head and neglect the heart. They focus almost exclusively on hard skills and capabilities like knowledge, skills, expertise, and other conventional indicators.

Of course, those factors are critical. Sometimes raw brainpower is especially important. Princeton University’s president, Shirley Tilghman, told us, “Brains really matter. You can’t be a leader here if you’re not smart.”

Even in intellectual and technical environments, the head is only part of the equation. Lynn Easterling, vice president law and deputy general counsel at Cisco, told us, “I can teach the hard skills, but I can’t teach good character or good relational skills. It’s much easier to find people with the hard skills than it is to find the people with both the hard and soft skills.”


Head vs. Heart

As we see it, “head” aspects include:

  • education
  • knowledge
  • skills
  • experience
  • intelligence
  • technical competence

“Heart” aspects include:

The term “heart” is rich with meaning. Parker Palmer, a distinguished author and teacher, captured it well:

“I’m using the word ‘heart’ as they did in ancient times . . . It meant that center in the human self where everything comes together—where will and intellect and values and feeling and intuition and vision all converge. It meant the source of one’s integrity. It takes courage to lead from the heart.”

Heart is what energizes people, what carries them through adversity, what drives them. Palmer observed that people are healthy and whole only when they involve both their head and heart.

Triple crown leadership integrates head and heart. In his best-selling book, Authentic Leadership, Bill George wrote that great companies must “figure out how to tap into people’s hearts—their passions and their desires to make a difference through their work.”

Lorrie Norrington, former president of eBay Marketplaces and now board member at Colgate Palmolive, told us:

“The heart really matters in leadership. Without heart, it isn’t possible to create passion, dedication, and lasting change in your business.”

People with heart show a fierce commitment to their organization, demonstrating loyalty to their colleagues and passion for the group’s purpose. They show a healthy ambition to excel and build something enduring and impactful. This fuels their performance and sustains them amid adversity. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Heart power is the strength of your company.”

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


Heart Impact

Those who have impacted Gregg most over the years have been those who led with their hearts. In college, it was a philosophy professor who trembled with intensity sometimes as he spoke about the great questions of life and how we should live it.

Years later, in a startup company, it was a committed colleague who, though generally friendly and thoughtful, would get right up in your face if you did anything that would jeopardize serving customers well or building a great company.

When you put your heart into it, you invite others to do so as well, transforming their relationship with the work.

Some leaders believe this heart stuff is too soft and fluffy. They dismiss it as not sufficiently actionable. We disagree. When you fill an organization with people with both head and heart, you transform both the people and the place in the process.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Heart Builds Trust

Heart traits have important benefits. Stephen M. R. Covey, author of the books Smart Trust and The Speed of Trust, writes, “Trust is a function of two things: character and competence. Character includes your integrity, your motive, your intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, your skills, your results, your track record. And both are vital.” Covey shows how this powerful combination speeds things up in organizations—accelerating to the “speed of trust”—leading to dramatic increases in results.


Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent do people in your organization have good head and heart qualities?
  2. How have leaders in your organization shown heart?
  3. Do your job descriptions include heart qualities?
  4. Do your screening and interview techniques include heart qualities?
  5. Do your job postings include heart qualities?

Alignment Scorecard

When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.


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Postscript: Quotes on Heart and Leadership

  • “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.” -Nelson Mandela
  • “A great person must have a big heart.” -Ethiopian expression
  • “It is not your experience, knowledge, or skills. Your heart is your most important leadership tool.” -Michael Hyatt
  • “The best-kept secret of successful leaders is love: staying in love with leading, with the people who do the work, with what their organizations provide, and with those who honor the organization by using its products and services. Leadership is not an affair of the head. Leadership is an affair of the heart.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
  • “It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men. Men respond to leadership in a most remarkable way and once you have won his heart, he will follow you anywhere.” -Vince Lombardi, legendary football coach
  • “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.” -Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “Business is the most powerful force for change, it touches every single moment of our lived life—whether you are customer, supplier, member of the community…. It’s about engaging the head and the heart. It doesn’t cost you financially to use your heart. But the cost of not doing it for humanity is so appallingly huge.” -Caroline Casey, social entrepreneur
  • “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
  • “Awake, dear heart, awake. Thou hast slept well. Awake.” -William Shakespeare
  • “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” -King Solomon (Proverbs 4:23)

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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! Importance of Heart in Leadership