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Should I Lead Teams With My Head or Heart?

Head or Heart leadership debate. Cartoon credit: The Awkward Yeti

The head or heart leadership debate 

Do the best leaders lead with their head or heart? This is indeed the million-dollar question!

Bookshelves around the world are literally full of books promoting one leadership style over another or selling the virtues of the latest leadership fads. In truth, this plethora of theories tend to confuse us – who or what should we consider in this cacophony?

In our increasingly changing world, where global supply chains are under review and growing uncertainty is driving organizations to accelerate digitization, reduce hierarchies and streamline resources – people are hungry for more meaning in their work and a closer connection to the planet (i.e.: a greater good). 

The implication of this environment is that leaders need both aspects. The head drives leadership around sustainable profit, growth, and stakeholder value creation. Whereas the heart leads the team with empathy, motivation, and understanding.

So this brings us to consider Compassionate leadership, the movement behind combining both the head and heart in leadership.

How leading with our head and heart works

When we think about compassion, we think about three human skill dimensions:

  1. Empathy
  2. Motivation
  3. Understanding


There are three stages of empathy according to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman:

  • Cognitive: the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking
  • Emotional: the ability to share the feelings of another person
  • Compassionate: goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it actually moves us to take action, to help however we can

A simple team meeting example to open up this conversation could sound like this: “Folks, I know you are each facing unique resource challenges. Let’s talk through each one and see what we can do as a team to alleviate the pressure points.”


We need to understand how we, and others, recharge our (their) motivation batteries. Some individuals use feedback and validation from others. Examples could include applause after a speech or audience laughter for a stand-up comedian. These are external motivators. The result: motivation to do more because of the independent feedback loop. 

Other individuals extract motivation from within: they are purpose-driven. A couple of examples of this approach could be:

  • Driven to continue losing weight after a weekly scale victory as part of a lifestyle change, or
  • Feeling inspired to help more vulnerable families escape dire situations after experiencing the impact of helping a family today.

These are internal motivators: one’s own feelings and beliefs drive ongoing effort and passion.

Understanding this aspect of motivation serves as a means by which leaders can extract the best from each team member. Personalization is naturally more powerful than a one size fits all approach!


It is essential that we all develop an understanding of and then build cognitive flexibility into how we collaborate and work. What does this mean? Think of cognitive flexibility as developing techniques and ways to analyze things. It means this approach allows us to see things from the point of view of others, in other words, we develop an understanding of different points of view, ideas, or opinions. A note of caution, remember to check that you’ve understood the person by retelling their point of view. This retelling or rephrasing strategy also implicitly tells the other person that you have empathy. So, the real goal is to develop a mental framework of thinking to understand alternative perspectives.

The benefits of using a head and heart approach

When we can help our team members tune into their thoughts and feelings and teach them ways to engage the mind, body, and gut – it short-circuits their responses to fear and anger. This, therefore, allows them to better manage the negative thoughts and emotions that often hijack rational behaviours. Researcher and author, Ellen Langer, found that “increasing mindfulness increases charisma and productivity, decreases burnout and accidents, and increases creativity, memory, attention, positive affect, health, and even longevity. When mindful we can take advantage of opportunities and avert the dangers that don’t yet exist. This is true for the leader and the led.”

What better reason do we need to adopt the head and heart approach as a leader?

Final Thoughts

By fostering a head and heart compassionate approach to leadership we spur more courageous behaviours and actions within the team. This is exactly what we need in today’s anxiety-driven, uncertain, and rapidly changing environment. We need to stop decision-making done out of fear of what could go wrong, or fear of losing power, and replace it with a leadership commitment to make things better by empowering others.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on the idea of leadership using a head and heart compassionate approach, or of any other leadership styles.

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: The Awkward Yeti

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