Leadership: What’s Heart Got To Do With It?

Incorporating Heart into Leadership. Photo by Ryan ‘O’ Niel

If you ask author, teacher and executive John Schuster – who has dedicated his career to leadership and human development – what he thinks about incorporating heart into leadership, he has quite a lot to say on the topic.

This includes a neuroscientific explanation for the connection between the head and the heart and why business cultures that aren’t tuned into their people often lack heart-centred leadership and execution.

John said: We hear the phrase “leading with heart” a lot in the leadership development world. Most acknowledge that good thought leadership is important but little gets executed in organizations without that elusive “chemistry factor” of the human heart. The neurosciences are a big help here, taking the heart metaphor-based meanings and adding some evidence-based know-how.

“The heart-brain, as it is commonly called, or intrinsic cardiac nervous system, is an intricate network of complex ganglia, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells, the same as those of the brain in the head. … And here is an important fact: the heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart.” —Heartmath.org

If you’re unfamiliar with Heartmath, let me introduce the concept, tying it to a few noteworthy leadership classics. The subject of Heartmath focuses on the human heart and its capabilities, not physically but in the neuroscience and emotional intelligence arenas.

What does this mean for leadership? There is not enough of a learning curriculum on the workings of the heart-brain, though emotional intelligence gets some good play at some places. The disciplines of efficiency and strategic know-how rely on head smarts, not heart-brain energy. Business schools, IT programs and finance/accounting departments, high schools and vocational ed and university programs of all kinds emphasize the quant side of our brains. Heart-centred leadership and execution are largely undervalued, and this creates organisation cultures not tuned to the people in them.

One current university exception here may be Gonzaga University in Washington, with its strong curriculum in Servant Leadership (which is a whole other sub-field but deeply connected to the heart factors in leadership—see Spears Center for Servant Leadership). To be fair, many quant-centered programs expand somewhat on head smarts and move into values, making room for green concerns and racial equity sensitivity. Let’s encourage the thinkers and companies deeply committed to these value-based concerns of course, and with more emphasis on heart-brain learning, all such efforts will do better.

Heart-brain matters have been around and sensed deeply by many thinkers before the neuroscience discoveries. For example, and to remind you of one heart-based leader, in case you have forgotten, and to introduce him to a younger audience that may not know his work: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.” So says Max DePree in his 1989 book Leadership Is an Art.

I met Max once, hearing him speak at a Servant Leadership Conference in the ’90s. He was the real deal. But one Amazon reviewer of his book was less than enthused “…Really, it all does boil down to “be nice to other people” but really, who needs a book to tell you that?” This illustrates how out on a limb some authors in leadership are, sounding folksy without the neuroscience. Folksy common sense is too soft for most of the primarily analytically oriented, and threats of intellectual negation are always lurking.

Still, I recommend his common sense, articulate advice and angles (and an oh-so-slightly, very measured religious tone every once in a while). Like this: “The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body. The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace? Manage conflict?” In other words, leaders are leading when they have followers oriented toward service and achieving their potential. Good metrics, don’t you think?

Other contributors, contemporary to DePree, to the heart-brain inclusive leadership school, are Kevin Cashman, Leadership from the Inside Out (look for the first of its multiple editions) and James Autrey’s, For Love and Profit (1992), if you want to see more pre-neuroscience contributions.

And Persian wisdom figure Kahlil Gibran himself predated them all: All knowledge is empty unless there is work. All work is empty unless there is love. Work is love made visible… to bake bread with indifference is to bake a bitter loaf which feeds but half man’s hunger.” —The Prophet (1923).

The call to action amidst these inspiring words:

Here is one more Heartmath quote for us to ponder: “…it was discovered the heart also manufactures and secretes oxytocin, which can act as a neurotransmitter and commonly is referred to as the love or social-bonding hormone… shown to be involved in cognition, tolerance, trust and friendship and the establishment of enduring pair-bonds. Remarkably, concentrations of oxytocin produced in the heart are in the same range as those produced in the brain.”

Go ahead, stretch the boundaries way past what they have been. Grow to be empowering and high-performing, fair and just, diverse and inclusive. And then stretch the boundaries more, make heart development as important, if not more so, than head development. Show us how it is done. Create a prototype. That’s a call to action worth a response.

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