Leadership…An Affair of the Heart


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, which produces an instant “gut reaction,” (such as 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, 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 to leaders?  First, whenever you confront important issues, ask yourself what your gut and heart are telling you, in addition to what your head might think, before deciding on a course of action.  Purposeful, committed action requires an alignment between your head and heart.

Second, our messages to our constituents must be connected to our true feelings (heart and gut).  Since our behavior is so heavily influenced by what we feel, any perceived disconnect between words and real feelings (as expressed in our behavior) will make us appear untrustworthy, damaging our credibility, the essential foundation of effective leadership.  Your constituents deem your leadership to be authentic when your true feelings and beliefs, spoken and written communications, and actions are in sync.

Third, our important messages to our constituents about vision, strategy, or change must first invoke a positive feeling in our constituents’ guts and hearts. If not, our words will most likely be negatively interpreted by their brain’s message center, resulting in the all too familiar “resistance to change” syndrome.

Finding your unique leadership voice that consistently inspires high levels of performance by your constituents is a significant “leadership challenge,” but one worthy of your best effort.  Get started by reflecting on the following thought questions.

  • Do you characterize yourself as a rationale 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 from 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 by your leader?  If yes, what about your leader’s words and actions inspired your positive response?  How can you use this particular experience to improve your own communications?  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 hearts and be comfortable with who they are.  Next, leaders ensure their words and actions are consistent with what they believe and who they really are.  Only then can they can win the hearts and minds of their constituents.

Copyright  © 2007 International Leadership Associates, Steve Houchin