Be a head-heart-hands “whole” leader

24 April, 2017

Round out your natural leadership style to inspire people and execute strategic goals

Last week, in a values discussion with our senior team, Shailesh Deshpande, who leads Talent and Leadership Development for the Group, talked about how leaders today need a different playbook to motivate, energise and engage their team members. We need to figure out what we need to do differently to connect with our teams to deliver the performance we desire. We need to adapt our approach to harness the different work styles and perspectives of our team members.

Conventionally, leadership has been more of the carrot-and-stick approach. Many leaders adopted a more directive or authoritarian approach, which allowed them much more control.

Things are not the same today. Much has changed around relationships and the complexity of the environments that we operate it. Just because you are anointed as a supervisor doesn’t mean that you will command respect. To be successful requires something quite different. We need a more integrated approach – to spark the imagination of our team members and to foster greater collaboration.

Back in 1994, John Nicholls proposed a framework for leadership skills, suggesting that they be considered basis inspirational leadership (the heart), strategic leadership (the head), and supervisory leadership (of the hands). This is arguably even more relevant, twenty-three years down the line.

So, drawing from this, my message today is on what it takes to be a “whole” leader – to lead from the head, heart and hands.

What is Head-Heart-Hands Leadership?

Clara Shish, in her article Best Advice: Lead With Your Head, Heart and Hands, talks about the best advice she ever received, from her Starbucks board colleague and mentor Craig Weatherup, a retired CEO of PepsiCo:

“Craig often reminds me that the keys to leadership are “head, heart, and hands,” meaning you must have good business judgment and lead with passion and purpose, while not being afraid to roll up your sleeves and work alongside your people every day.”

We all demonstrate, in different measure, these aspects of head, heart and hands leadership. Most of us will tend to lean strongly towards one or two of these aspects and be weaker in the others. The idea here is not to change your fundamental style or suggest that one approach is better than the other. They all have their benefits, as much as they do, their drawbacks. What is important however, is that you are able to identify and leverage your natural strengths. At the same time, be wary of potential blind spots and be willing to learn and work hard to overcome them.

Barbara Trautlein, who has a Ph.D. in organisational psychology and more than 25 years of experience in helping businesses lead change, says that leaders today must have a high CQ – ‘Change Intelligence’. The author of Change Intelligence: Use the Power of CQ to Lead Change that Sticks, she rightly points out that given the increasing complexity and flux of macro environments today, successful companies need leaders who are a mix of all three styles and can adapt basis what the situation and their people demand.

“… who are able to lead with the head – focusing on the big-picture goal and business objectives; the heart – knowing how to engage, coach and motivate people; and with your hands – providing the tactical tools and skills necessary like a project manager.”

Trautlein references the results of a 2013 Global CEO Survey conducted by PwC. The top five leaders most admired by the CEOs surveyed were Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Jack Welch. The qualities people most admire in them are strong vision, motivational, caring, innovative, persistent and ethical – a sum of the head-heart-hands approaches.

Is your natural leadership style more like that of a visionary (leading with your head), a coach (leading with you heart) or an executor (leading with your hands)? And what can you do to leverage this and become a more “whole” leader?

Leading with your Head (The Visionary)

Almost visionary in approach, people who lead more with their heads are focused on the larger picture. It’s almost a must-have for most leadership positions. If this is your natural style, you would most likely be driven by business objectives and growth. You will enjoy planning and building for the future, and looking for new opportunities. You are focused and goal-oriented. This very clearly becomes your primary measure of success. Because you are so driven, you will be able to clearly show tangible achievements. You will also be willing to take on challenges and experiment, if it is towards a longer-term goal.

The flip side however, is that you may be less likely to consider the impact of your choices and actions on softer aspects like people and culture. You may not spend enough time understanding the individual needs and styles of your team members, or drawing people into decision making, simply because you see this as slowing down the overall process. While you will be quick to focus on achieving goals, you won’t be too fussed about the ‘how’ of the process. That could trip you.

Remember, it isn’t enough for you to craft a vision. You must be able to leverage it to excite and inspire your team. Find a way to make them feel like they own it too. Also, show them what this could look like in more real terms by detailing a roadmap with milestones.

Leading with your Heart (The Coach)

Distinctly collaborative and inclusive, people who lead with their hearts, thrive on energy from people and relationships. Inspiring and passionate, these leaders will get their teams to rally together and make decisions, make it a point to draw people into discussions, and actively encourage different points of view.

If you identify with this leadership style, you probably make tradeoffs to prioritise people over processes. The dynamics in your team and the culture that you foster will be an end in itself. But you run the risk of neglecting the importance of longer-term planning and the need to achieve goals. Your natural style probably doesn’t lend itself to difficult conversations. You may also tend to err on the side of brushing aside conflict and not pushing people harder.

While there is no doubt that people are critical, you must also have these efforts centred around a common purpose. Be careful to not allow performance to take a backseat.

Leading with your Hands (The Executor)

Executors, like the name suggests, excel at execution. People with this dominant style will be extremely efficient, and thrive on planning. They break the leadership stereotype, roll up their sleeves and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They will plan extensively, almost painstakingly detail tasks and then double down on last mile execution. These are people who you can count on to set high performance standards and deliver against them.

If you enjoy leading with your hands, you need to be careful to not focus on the execution so much that you become inflexible. One of the biggest risks of this leadership style is indulging in over-planning and demanding unrealistic performance standards. This comes into conflict particularly when your team members don’t have similar working styles.

So, take the time to rope people in and align them with your plans. You will need their support to drive successful execution over the longer term. And build in enough checks, so that along side execution, you’re also evaluating whether or not you’re following the right strategy in the first place.

Do take the time this week to reflect on your personal leadership style and where you fall in the Head-Heart-Hands Leadership matrix. Ask yourself what it would take for you to become a more “whole” leader. How do you see yourself leveraging some of the natural strengths that define your style? And what personal improvements can you work on?

As always, I look forward to your perspectives.


  • Saurabh Jhawar says:

    Excellent read, Vivek. I am a firm believer that for one to succeed in a role, he/she needs to put in both heart as well as head. Importance of hand is equally critical.


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