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How To Lead With Heart

Those who lead with heart consistently have discussions with their teams about their unexpressed needs, fears, desires, gifts, and sense of purpose, explain the authors of the compelling book, Leading With Heart. 

CEO coaches and authors John Baird and Edward Sullivan share that anyone can learn how to make an authentic connection with their teams in order to drive better outcomes. And their book provides readers clear and practical insights to help them succeed in making those connections. Be sure to read the highlighted key principles and takeaways at the end of every chapter.


Baird and Sullivan further share that workers today want to feel respected, seen and appreciated for who they are. That’s why companies with the best retention, morale, and productivity are led by leaders with heart.


As Alexander Den Heijer said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”


“In heart-based cultures, people feel safe pushing back and improving each other’s ideas. They communicate bad news early so it doesn’t become a larger problem. They share resources in the name of the common good, not to help personal agendas,” explain Baird and Sullivan.


“When we started writing, we were inspired by the question: What separates truly transformational leaders from the rest of the pack? Every year thousands of books and articles are written about the correct ways to be a leader with no clear answers. Diving deeper into our combined 40 years of coaching work and assessment, our data showed that great leaders are the most curious, caring, and insightful about themselves and their people. They have the courage to have conversations often considered taboo or too difficult.”


According to the authors, heart-led companies have:

  • Lower turnover
  • Decentralized decision-making
  • Healthy and constructive creative conflict
  • Rigorous debate and truth-seeking in meetings
  • Strategic alignment
  • Sharing of resources to support company goals
  • Seamless flow of crucial information leading to early problem detection

Also, Baird and Sullivan teach that leading with heart begins with developing your own understanding of yourself: your needs, your fears, your desires, and so on. “Leaders who do not have an exquisite understanding of an relationship with themselves can never hope to have conversations that unlock creativity, purpose, and results with their teams.”


John Baird



Edward Sullivan


Awhile back, Baird and Sullivan shared these additional insights:


What are the consequences of leading with fear instead of heart?


Baird/Sullivan: In cultures dominated by fear, silence and compliance become the norms rather than clear communication and open debate.


In fear cultures, poor ideas aren’t contested, bad news isn’t communicated, and information and resources are hoarded, which can all lead to a negative death spiral.


Leading with heart coaching often starts with helping leaders name their own fears. In the book, we talk about Luis and his challenges growing up with the fear of disappointing his parents. Luis is a classic imposter syndrome example, needing to control every situation. Once Luis addressed his fears and shared his story openly, the team dynamic changed.


What are some warning signs that psychological needs are not being met in a team?


Baird/Sullivan: Some signs that people’s psychological needs aren’t being met are easy to see: in-fighting, politics, hoarding information and resources.


These toxic behaviors are obvious. But it’s the less obvious signs that are even more important to look for: people not sharing bad news that the team can learn from, expressing disagreement through inaction rather than honest feedback, or simply falling into a state of apathy and disengagement.


How do you address these signs?


Baird/Sullivan: We might be biased, but we believe the best way to address these issues is to have honest conversations about them. And it starts with the leader getting vulnerable about their own experience.


Conversation starters like “I’m noticing that people are less willing to bring bad news to this meeting, and it may be a dynamic that I’ve created. I’d like to talk about what you all need me to do to fix that.” Leading with heart is about helping leaders have these conversations engaging their employees in real dialogue about what they see going on. Once leaders ask these questions, it is critical that they “hear” what their employees are saying and commit to actions for resolving the issues surfaced.


How do leaders help team members realize their gifts so they can be used with others?


Baird/Sullivan: We are all gifted at something. The problem is our true gift might be a few layers below what we are apparently good at.


Some junior person at an AI company might apparently be great at writing succinct memos on complex topics, so the common response is to give that person more memos to write. But what if their real gift is gleaning what information is important in extremely complex data sets? Perhaps their gift could be put to better use helping the machine learning team train the algorithm which would be much more valuable to the company. The challenge for leaders is to help teams see their underlying gifts beneath what they are apparently good at.


The underlying gift is where the magic and true value are. Too many companies fail to see underlying natural gifts that people have. Instead of finding a job that fits a person’s gift, companies are quick to fire people rather than find the right role. Leading with heart cultures cultivate a climate where people can be at their best in roles where their gifts are needed and valued.


How can leaders positively steer company culture, especially if there is a long way to go?


Baird/Sullivan: The first step is discussing why company culture is headed in the wrong direction. Leaders try to be inspirational and get people revved up, but that is often seen as lip service. Your people want to know that you recognize there are problems and accept responsibility for them. They want to know that they are not crazy, that there is indeed something amiss here. People know when they are being gaslighted.


The leader who simply delivers an inspiring speech or installs kombucha on tap rather than dealing with the core issue makes people feel less safe, not more. Resetting culture is not easy and often begins with reminding leaders to get back to their core mission and purpose, reminding themselves and their employees WHY the company exists.


A word that comes up a lot in the book is “empathy.” When it comes to leadership, why is empathy even more crucial today than it was five or even two years ago?


Baird/Sullivan: The truth of the matter is that leading with heart, which is really leading with empathy, has never been more important. Many of the routines and structures that created a sense of belonging and safety for us (e.g., going to the office every day, having lunch with coworkers, drinks at the pub after work) are gone, or, if not gone, have drastically changed. Add on top of that the toxicity in our domestic and global politics, the looming threat of an economic downturn, rising prices of everything—people are scared and tired.


Leaders who are unable to have conversations that show they can empathize with the daily experience of their employees and instead ask when the accounts receivable report will be done are the ones who are seeing higher turnover and lower morale.


Your people are suffering. Stop talking about work for a few minutes and start talking about what they need to feel resourceful again, what gifts they have that are going unexpressed in this role.


At the core of leading with heart is coaching leaders how to listen and hear through conversation. Too many leaders listen to respond rather than listen to hear. Start leading with heart.

Thank you to the book's publisher for sending me an advance copy of the book.



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