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December 5, 2022

Leading with Heart: Heart First Leadership is Key to Making an Impact in Business Today


“How do I be a better leader now?”

As I sit in discussions with leaders these days, I inevitably get some version of this question. We may be meeting about communication, discussing how to navigate change, or working to define a new strategy, and inevitably the conversation evolves to this critical point. Leaders want to know how to lead such that employees feel compelled to follow. They want to know the secrets behind motivating employees – through all forms of communication and action to be “all in.”

In my decades of advising leaders at top companies, the answer comes down to one core concept, what I refer to as Heart First leadership. In a nutshell, this is simply about being more human as you lead, understanding that nothing really important gets done without genuine relationships, buy-in, trust and support from your full team.

Naturally, the concept has existed for decades, but the pandemic and the dramatic period of societal and organizational change that followed brought the idea into clearer focus. It is what inspired my latest leadership book, “Heart First: Lasting Leader Lessons from the Year that Changed Everything.”

What is Heart First Leadership?

I define Heart First Leadership as championing empathy, humanity and authenticity to build stronger, more trusting relationships and a thriving, purpose-driven organization.

One of the first things that come to mind when I think about Heart First is many of the frank conversations I had with CEOs and other leaders of organizations for my book. Just after the pandemic began, leaders shared that their understanding of what it took to be a great leader was clearly put to the test not only during the pandemic but in the ensuing social and political unrest that followed it.

Leaders said that until that period, there was a sense that they always needed to have the answers and put on a strong face no matter what challenges came their way. The pandemic tested that thinking a bit, and they began to see the power in being more authentic, sharing what they didn’t know, and being ok with asking for help in solving big challenges. Along the way, they also discarded the masks we all tend to put on going to work to embrace more of who they are as people. Many leaders also grew a deep appreciation for employees doing the same. In the end, this push for more humanity was seen by many as uniquely powerful in building more solid, genuine relationships, the kind that can make a lasting difference in the culture of any organization.

The 7 Attributes Behind Heart First Leadership

What do Heart First leaders do? I’ve narrowed it down to seven key attributes:

  1. Understand the importance of self-care so they can bring their best self to work. The best leaders understand that if they don’t care for themselves, they can’t bring the energy needed to meet the demands of the job. This is about having the courage and foresight to manage stress so you can build your resilience and coping skills. Leaders who don’t do this often end up with change fatigue due to the high demands of leading effectively today.
  2. Listen intently to employees and others in all kinds of ways, and help employees prioritize what matters. This is where the famous phrase “Know your audience” comes into play – and it’s an extremely important concept. Leaders need to commit to doing the work necessary to listen to the real needs of employees, and then balance those needs against the needs of the business. Remember that no matter what you may see as an urgent priority, employees are still going to be asking “What’s in it for me?” That’s why listening is so important. Charging ahead with programs or initiatives that employees don’t embrace or even understand is a sure way to fail.
  3. Bring humanity and vulnerability to leadership, with a genuine desire to build connections. Leaders who are willing to be real with their teams, sharing personal reflections and aspirations for the business and the culture they’re trying to bring, inevitably draw people in. Employees need to know and feel connected to their leaders to be motivated to actually follow them.
  4. Create a psychologically safe culture where people feel invited to take risks and speak their truths. This kind of culture is especially important in today’s business environment. Without a level of calculated risks, there’s little opportunity for creative solutions that drive innovation and breakthroughs. Further, if people of different cultures, backgrounds, sexual orientations and ethnicities don’t feel they are respected and appreciated for who they are, you simply can’t build a truly connected and engaged team.
  5. Increase leader communication effectiveness. The most effective leaders understand that communication is a critically powerful tool for engagement and leads to positive business outcomes. There’s a lot that goes into great communication, but it’s highlighted by the following:
    • Communicate the right messages at the right time
    • Frame the context of what’s happening inside an organization so employees know what’s going on and why
    • Talk openly about what’s happening, with the understanding that transparency is key to building trust
    • Determine the right channels to communicate with impact – giving employees information in the way they want to see it
    • Answer employee questions directly and honestly, demonstrating that you’re genuinely listening
  6. Communicate authentically and with their heart, not just their heads. Often leaders feel it’s a sign of weakness to share personal thoughts or feelings, when in fact that kind of self-disclosure at the right moments actually helps make communication more relatable and powerful. This is not about sharing personal feelings with every communication, but it’s important to simply recognize that certain moments call for more “real” and relatable thought starters. It’s not only okay but preferable that teams get to know leaders and what they’re passionate about.
  7. Become an expert storyteller. Leaders who can use stories and examples to illustrate what they’re hoping to achieve are far more effective in engaging and inspiring others. This kind of more compelling communication helps to break through change fatigue and information overflow. Now more than ever, employees are tired of corporate speak and want to be drawn into real context and meaning. Stories can achieve that more than any other tool.Taking the idea a step further, consider the importance of story listening. We talk a lot about storytelling and its power – to create an emotional connection with others – that stories are more memorable than facts. What’s new here and critically important is the concept of story listening – listening and understanding the stories of others to create belonging and connections, build relationships and help others bring their best selves to work.

Why is Heart First Leadership so important?

A Heart First Leadership approach doesn’t just help you build better connections with your teams; it also is a great way to tackle the unique challenges of today’s social and business climate. Through a Heart First approach, you’ll gain far greater engagement, retention and business results.

That’s because when you lead in this way, you help people be their best selves, bring a greater sense of purpose and meaning to every member of your team, and inspire them to achieve much more for themselves and their organizations.

Of course, research supports that there are very practical reasons for adopting this type of leadership philosophy. Here are my top three research highlights:

  1. CEOs of the future lead with heart. Consider this one headline from a 2020 Korn Ferry summary of interviews with more than 100 board directors and CEOs about leadership characteristics necessary for success. They said: “The CEO of the future must be radically human, focusing on leading with authenticity, humanity and heart.”
  2. Real empathy has an impact.
  3. Heart First Leadership is good for the overall business.
    • Leaders who practice empathy have been shown to have a more engaged and higher-performing team, as well as a more profitable business overall. (Catalyst research study, “The Power of Empathy in Times of Crisis and Beyond,” Sept. 2021)

Leading with Heart, First: 5 Tips

Leading with heart in today’s business climate comes in many forms, but here are some of the tips we’ve found to be most helpful for the organizations we’ve advised:

  • Listen and Respond. Take the time to understand what’s on your team’s minds. What questions and concerns do they have? What do they need to make their work experience better? Ask for their feedback – and show them you’re listening by acting on what you hear. You won’t be able to fix every problem but do what you can and explain when you can’t, providing the context they need to understand the situation.
  • Be Vulnerable. Share your own life story and life experiences, your challenges and the things that matter most to you. Doing so will make your team members more likely to share their stories and journeys – what has made them who they are and what their hopes and dreams are for the future, both in their careers and in their personal lives. It’s critically important for you to be relatable and build trusting and meaningful connections with your team.
  • Share What You Know When You Know It. Easier said than done, I know. And sometimes, you’re bound by confidentiality on the information that you have. But often, you can share information about what’s going on and what the vision is for the future. You can also provide context for company decisions and help your team members see what it means for them. If you don’t know the answer to a question, find the answer and share it. Candor builds credibility and trust.
  • Recognize Your Team Members for Their Hard work and Accomplishments, and in ways that matter to them. Sure, you should take advantage of your corporate recognition programs and the points and perks they offer. But that’s not enough. Make a goal to send three thank you notes a week to different members of your team (hand-written notes are even better). Call out specifically what they did to earn your thanks. To the degree that you have leeway to purchase modest thank-you gifts, pick something that matches the interests of the individual, such as dinner or tickets to a ball game. Show them that you care enough to know what’s important to them.
  • Build Regular Recognition into Your Team Meetings. Set aside a few minutes at the start or end of every team meeting for a shout-out to a team member. You can do it yourself or set it up where team members recognize a peer for something they did. By making it a regular part of your team meetings, you’ll make it a regular part of your gratitude and recognition.

Examples of Heart First Leadership 

The idea of leading with more heart and humanity has definitely taken root with many of the leaders we’ve worked with over the past several years. Many leaders share that they feel more effective and more connected to their teams as a result. Here are some examples of Heart First Leadership that stand out for me, along with a keyword that summed up the effort:

  • Empathy. Leaders of a prominent hospital group recognized the growing signs of strain and burnout among their healthcare professionals and started spending more time listening to employees. They then identified the top needs and responded with an array of new efforts to combat employee turnover and increase retention. Top hospital leaders also spent more time communicating with their teams in more personal and authentic ways, sharing their own stories about the challenges they faced and their vision for the future of the organization. In that process, employees were also invited to share their hopes and dreams for their own careers, as well as for the organization as a whole.
  • Humanity. At a time when many employees were feeling stressed and uncertain about a new strategic direction for the company, a leading healthcare organization took a break from the normal routine to pause and reset. Leaders held a well-planned, all-associate meeting that celebrated team wins and individual employees, codified the business strategy, and candidly addressed pressing employee questions and concerns. The meeting concluded with a presentation from an inspirational speaker who offered guidance for tackling the specific challenges and needs of the team, helping to motivate the organization for the path forward.
  • Authenticity. The CHRO of a medical device company we’ve worked with now looks at leadership in a new way that she believes is far more effective than how she led in the past. Today, she takes more time to listen to each employee’s “story” because, as she puts it, “everyone has a story … a story that helps define who they are, what they hope to accomplish, and what truly matters to them when it comes to work and life.” Similarly, she has taken more time to share her own story as a black woman leader in corporate America, and her passion for meaningful DEI initiatives. In the past, she tended to be much more private, separating her work and family life to such an extreme degree that it held her back from more meaningful working relationships.

The Challenge Before Leaders

Leaders clearly need to lead differently today, yet many leaders are wholly unprepared to do so. This isn’t something that comes naturally to many, but it can be taught and practiced until it’s a muscle that leaders have developed. When done well, I’ve seen it produce remarkable leaps not only in engagement but in countless business outcomes and in the overall culture of a company.

One of our global clients talks about it this way: “The key to shifting ways of working is by shifting the ways leaders lead. They go hand in hand because the leader still makes the weather.”

I couldn’t have said it better. This is exactly why Heart First Leadership – and leading with heart, first – is so important. There are enough storms already swirling in the social, political and business climate; the path toward calming the waters – and reaching solid ground – is all about navigating with heart.

How might leading with heart help you increase your impact, create a better employee experience and improve business results?

—David Grossman

Discover the power of leading with empathy, humanity and authenticity to better engage and motivate your team. Download your free copy of the eBook, 7 Attributes of Heart First Leadership: Making an Impact in Business Today.

Click to download the 7 Attributes of Heart First Leadership eBook

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