The Key to Becoming a Better Leader Today

November-December 2022
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Leaders always want to know the secrets to elevating their leadership skills. They often ask just what it takes to motivate employees — through all forms of communication and action — to be “all in.” 

The answer comes down to a core concept, what I’ve recently referred 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, some of the concepts behind “Heart First” have existed for decades, but the pandemic and the ensuing period of societal and organizational change brought the idea into much clearer focus. Leaders recognized solid leadership and “people skills” as being essential to their success. 

This realization is what inspired my latest leadership book, “Heart First: Lasting Leader Lessons From the Year that Changed Everything.”

The importance of heart

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

Before the pandemic, many leaders felt they had to have the answers and tried to put on a strong face no matter what challenges came their way. The pandemic tested that thinking, and I saw leaders beginning to see the power in being more authentic, sharing what they didn’t know, and being OK with asking for help and working more as a team to solve big challenges. 

It was a healthy change for many leaders because, along the way, many discarded the masks we all tend to put on going to work and instead embraced more of who they are as people. Many also encouraged employees to do 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 for 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, then 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 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, then you can’t build a connected and engaged team. 

5. Increase leader communication effectiveness. The most effective leaders understand that communication is a 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 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 OK — 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. 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. 

The challenge before leaders 

Leaders clearly need to lead differently to make a lasting difference, which is why Heart First leadership 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.

Return to Current Issue Leadership | November-December 2022
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