A fine friend and skilled speaker landed in a dreadful situation. He had agreed to address a convention of toastmasters—persons who lead local public-speaking clubs where members overcome common speaking fears and practice effective speaking techniques.
When he arrived a few minutes early for the event, he met with his friend who had arranged the speech. He discovered that the audience was not toastmasters, but postmasters who run local post offices.
He frantically tried to organize a speech in his head while his friend introduced him. Then he took the stage, mic in hand, alone with the whole banquet hall of postmasters peering directly at him. What could he possibly do?
He relinquished his facade.
“I never saw a well-fitting mask. It is a great relief to take them off.” —Robert Greenleaf
My friend explained to his audience that he had planned a speech for the wrong group. That he didn’t even know what postmasters actually do. That he was thoroughly unprepared.
Then he spoke from the heart about what he knew intimately. He told stories about his loneliness. About his fears. About the stifling lack of meaning in his own work sometimes.
My friend’s message was simple but profound: We are all first and foremost human beings, not workers. We share a common humanity. We experience fear as well as hope. We all feel this in our hearts.
Then he thanked the postmasters for the opportunity to share his off-the-cuff thoughts and feelings.
He received a long, standing ovation. The wounded storyteller had connected with the wounded postmasters. By taking off his “professional” mask, he had honestly led them into a shared, human journey of hope. In spite of being unprepared, he had served them as a great leader-communicator.
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” Thomas Jefferson
The bookstores have volumes and the media is full of examples of people who believe the way to success is to crush the competition—out-strategizing people and pressing your advantage till they are crushed by the wayside. Young leaders are told to step on faces to get ahead or aim for short term goals of size and profit.
But there is another way. There is a clear path to have stunning success and still be able to sleep at night and be proud to tell your grandchildren how the world is a better place because you were in it.
Values-based, not ego-based, leadership focuses on serving the greater good and accomplishing a higher purpose. It is not complicated. It is just difficult.
“Values-based, not ego-based, leadership focuses on serving the greater good and accomplishing a higher purpose.” -Jeff Thompson
Let’s take for example the last broad economic downturn.
How are the priorities in your department or company organized to deal with this problem? Who were the first to be affected? The most vulnerable? The last people who were brought in the organization (your future)? The people with the least power and the least influence? Who took the biggest beating? What won the day? The long-term good of the organization or the short-term financial performance report for the board? Shareholders may clamor for short-term wins, but there is no law that says you have to sacrifice the long-term health of the organization or its people to satisfying this immediate clamor. Decision making guided by values takes courage, discipline and durability.
“Decision making guided by values takes courage, discipline and durability.” -Jeff Thompson
Through the younger years of childhood, we successfully diverted the annual dog question. “Not this year, we’re going to take a special trip!” “How about a ping-pong table instead?” “We aren’t home enough to have a pet—it wouldn’t be fair.” “Mommy and Daddy already bought you a gift. You’re going to love it!” Squeals of excitement and distraction. Dog day averted once again.
Be Open to the Unexpected
That’s why it came as a shock to all of us one year when the annual plea was made and I said “maybe.”
WHAT?! Who said that? My husband looked at me as if I had lost my mind. I had and didn’t know why. Seriously, I had no idea why I said “maybe” but now I was in trouble. Three pairs of eyes staring at me with a mix of sheer joy and astonishment. And then the questions. “When can we get it!?” “Can it be a puppy?” “Can I name it?”
“Uh honey, can I speak to you privately?” My husband ushered me out to garage. “What are you doing!?”
“I don’t know but I have a plan.” During the questioning and walk to the garage, I had devised a strategy. We would just go and look. I had to maintain credibility but was certain I could find a way out.
I phoned my friend Rene. Rene had recently assumed the leadership role at a rural animal shelter. “Hey Rene”! Had to be careful here…didn’t want to give her the wrong impression. “You probably don’t have any suitable dogs and I’m not really a dog person but you know…the kids keep asking. I might consider it if you had something in the range of a 2-year old, house-broken, non-shedding, hypo-allergenic, 15-20 pound, special breed, child-friendly dog.” I felt pretty smug and slightly guilty. When Rene said “no” I would just go back and tell the children they didn’t have any dogs this year that would be right for us.
“You know”, said Rene, we don’t get a lot of dogs here with that profile but we have a few that would be perfect for your kids. Bummer. Again, my integrity was at stake. “Can you and your family stop by the shelter tomorrow night?” Moving too fast Rene.
“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” –Josh Billings
On the hour drive to the shelter, the excitement increased. The adults weren’t saying much and the kids didn’t stop talking. We arrived at a small, colorful little building and were met by Rene and her friendly team. Secretly hoped it would be dark and smelly but no such luck.
Rene handed us a family questionnaire. Huh. Weren’t we here to look at dogs? We completed the survey with questions like, “Do you want your dog to excitedly greet you and follow you when you arrive at home, greet you and then return to his/her spot or not greet you at all?”
Life’s Greatest Joys Are Not Usually Planned
After our family questionnaire was completed and scored, we were given a color that represented our family temperament. Dogs with the same color were brought out for us to “interview.” We were deemed to be “compatible” with two color groups. Interesting. Maybe we could use this system when we interviewed people for jobs at my company.
Among the canine candidates was Miles the Beagle. My husband had beagles growing up, albeit outdoors. He was cute and I thought “maybe.” Then he hiked his leg on the drywall. Rene saw the horror on my face.
You see, I am an indoor person. I view the outdoors pretty much as the space between two indoor places. “Now don’t let that bother you”, says Rene. Our reception area ‘reads’ as an outdoor space to him because of all the dogs. He probably wouldn’t do that once he was settled in your home.” Just the mere chance was more than I could handle. We passed on Miles. Another few interviewees and I was thinking we were home free. Even the kids were a little put off by Miles’ behavior.
And then Bonita was ushered in. Fifty pounds, shedding, black hair, not sure of her age, rescued from the roadside. Not at all my ideal dog profile. Handed to our son to walk, she stayed right beside him. Stopped when he stopped, walked when he walked, looked up at us all adoringly. She was apparently bi-lingual and responded to commands in English and Spanish. Danger zone. I had to do something.
“The simplest things in God’s creation, even an abandoned dog, speak volumes about love.” -Tammi Spayde
A heart-led leader serves others. They epitomize servant leadership. They are humble. They are genuine and sincere. They are transparent and vulnerable. They measure success not just on spreadsheets but on the amount of impact they (and their organizations) have on others. They believe love and results are two sides of the same coin.
Why do heart-led leaders produce better results?
For years we looked at servant leadership as a worthy leadership style that is beneficial to organizational culture but not necessarily tied to bottom-line results. Heart-Led Leaders are obsessed with achieving bottom-line results. But they also believe that love and results are two sides of the same coin. They believe that if they love what they do and who they do it for, it is hard not to produce extraordinary results.
Are you born a heart-led leader or are you able to acquire the characteristics over time?
This is a century old argument – are leaders born or are they made? I have always believed that although we may be born with certain characteristics and qualities, true heart-led leadership is a learned trait – just as one would learn how to ride a bike. If one chooses to become a heart-led leader, he or she can become one. But the 18-Inch Journey to become a Heart-Led Leader is a difficult one.
“Heart-led leaders have the self awareness to understand who they are.” -Tommy Spaulding
You make the point that there are 18 inches between the head and the heart, and then provide 18 leadership principles to support the difference. Would you talk about one or two of these that stand out and why they are so important?
The Heart Led Leader
I believe the journey to heart-led leadership is the 18-inches between your head and your heart. In my book, The Heart-Led Leader, I list 18 traits that I believe one must possess to become a heart-led leader—traits such a humility, passion, love, authenticity and vulnerability, etc. I think 21st century leaders must possess these qualities to be truly successful – to create impact, change and bottom-line results.
As an Eagle Scout myself, I was pulled into your personal example about when you wanted to be named Outstanding Scout. Would you share that story and what you learned about character?
Character is one of the 18-inches (traits) of heart-led leadership. I first learned of the importance of character at Boy Scout camp when I was a kid. The scout masters chose one scout at the end of summer camp that was awarded the “Most Outstanding Scout” award. It was the highest honor given to the one scout who demonstrated great leadership qualities. I wanted to win this award more than anything. That week during scout camp I worked harder than any of the other scouts. I got up early. I volunteered for everything. I earned more merit badges, and did whatever the scout masters asked of me.
At the end of the scout camp we had a huge camp fire celebration. And at the end of the evening the scout masters awarded the “Most Outstanding Scout” award. I was certain that I would win the award. I nearly started to stand up before they announced my name.
Anyone can be a heart-centered leader if he or she has the determination and daily commitment to practice certain core principles. The root or basis of these principles is what we call “the power of the human element.” Two things are required to tap into and unleash the human element. The first is your ability to listen or, even better, your ability to learn how to listen. The second is your own willingness to clear personal obstacles, in other words, your own story and organizational obstacles that get in the way of this deeper listening.
“If you stand straight, do not fear a crooked shadow.” -Chinese Proverb
A heart-centered leader tells the truth. If you are not able to provide information when asked, you must be willing to explain why you aren’t at liberty to share that information.
A heart-centered leader does not judge or assume, but comes to understand, asking the right questions instead rushing to judgment and assumption.
Our book outlines some key guidelines for heart-centered behavior. But in order for this behavior to be authentic, it has to come from a place of emotional resonance and coherence. You have to believe in what you are doing. It has to resonate with you. Ultimately, a heart-centered leader leads from principles, values, and virtues.
“Since in order to speak, one must first listen, learn to speak by listening.” -Rumi
I ask them to reflect on a time in their career when being open-minded paid big dividends and why. I also ask them to tell me of a time when they were not open-minded and what happened. I find that if people can reflect on their own experiences, they can piece together the benefits of being open-minded much faster than me pointing out the rewards of being open-minded.
Another approach is to ask leaders to imagine how differently they would communicate with an associate if grounded in this key principle: people have positive intentions. It requires revising certain ways of thinking, such as taking sides in a conflict, and replacing them with healthier habits of mind — observing the perspective of both sides. It involves identifying and taking responsibility for your own mental tendencies, including an inclination to stereotypes and making snap judgments about what people “should” do. It also means flexing your empathetic muscle. As a result, you gain a greater understanding of the causes of atypical behavior and problems that result from that behavior, as well as insight into the best solution.
“Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it.” -David Starr Jordan