Leadership: An Affair of the Heart

Steve Houchin

For years we have stated that while management is an affair of the head, leadership is an affair of the heart. Today, neuroscience is proving us right!

When we have a direct experience, nerve impulses travel first to the enteric nervous system—literally a second brain in our intestines—that produces an instant gut reaction (what we might call 'butterflies'). Next stop for the impulses are the baroreceptors in the heart, or the third brain. The brain in the heart communicates to the rest of the body in a number of ways, one of which is a chemical messenger in the hormonal system called atrial peptide, a principle driver of motivated behavior (the goal of every leader!). Neural messages travel to the brain in our heads to be "thought about" after they have been sensed and interpreted by the intestines and the heart.

What does this mean for leaders? First, whenever you confront important issues and before deciding on a course of action, ask yourself what your gut and heart are telling you in addition to what your head might think. Purposeful, committed action requires an alignment between your head and heart.

Second, messages to constituents must be connected to the heart and gut, reflecting your true feelings. Since behavior is so heavily influenced by what we feel, any perceived disconnect between words and real feelings often makes us appear untrustworthy and damages our credibility—the essential foundation of effective leadership. Constituents believe in the authenticity of leadership when true feelings and beliefs, spoken and written communications, and actions are all in sync.

Third, important messages about vision, strategy, or change must first invoke a positive feeling in the guts and hearts of constituents. If not, your words likely will be interpreted negatively by the message centers in their brains, resulting in the all-too-familiar "resistance to change" syndrome.

Finding your unique leadership voice-one that consistently inspires high levels of performance by constituents—is a significant "leadership challenge" but one worthy of your best efforts. One way to get started is to reflect on the following thought questions:

  • Do you characterize yourself as a rational decision maker or someone who tends to go with your gut feeling? The next time you are making an important decision, listen to what both your gut and brain may be telling you and try to bring them into alignment.
  • Am I an authentic leader? Do my constituents really know what I feel and believe what they hear and see? Is there anything about me that I could change to improve my credibility in the eyes of my followers?
  • Recall the last important message you received from your leader(s). Did you understand, agree, or even care? Did you enthusiastically take the appropriate action called for? If yes, what about the leader or what did the leader say or do that inspired your positive response? How can you use this experience to improve your own communication? If no, what specifically can you learn from the experience to avoid or change?

Successful leaders have discovered that they must first listen to their own heart, be comfortable with who they are, and ensure that their words and actions are consistent with both what they believe and their authentic selves. Only then can they can win the hearts and minds of their constituents.

Steve Houchin, an 18-year veteran of corporate HR and executive leadership, is an owner and Managing Partner of International Leadership Associates, the leadership development firm that has presented The Leadership Challenge® Workshop to organizations, large and small, for over 15 years. He can be reached at shouchin@i-lead.com.

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