#WorkTrends Recap: Leading from the Heart

“There are stories in the news left and right about the lack of integrity corporate leadership and government. But I knew there were good leaders out there. What does it look like if you’re leading from the heart?”

Shelly Francis is author of the new book “The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity,” which she wrote on behalf of the Center for Courage & Renewal.

The book is the result of years of research into what makes a great leader — and what happens when leaders live out their values. She interviewed 120 people about their journeys as leaders. She found that when people lead from their hearts, trying their best to stay authentic and self-aware, they build more trusting relationships.

Break Out of Fight-or-Flight Mode

In her research, Francis identified four common “F” responses: fight, flight, freeze and flock (that’s thinking about the world as “us versus them.”). But someone usually loses when we default to those stress responses.

So, she looked to a new “F” response: fortify. When you fortify yourself, you reflect and focus.

Find New Kinds of Courage

Francis started seeing a few patterns, common ways great leaders fortify themselves and lead more courageously. “We usually think about courage as physical courage — athletes, soldiers — or speaking out for justice,” she says. But there are other kinds of courage we see all the time but don’t name:

  • Social courage: Being vulnerable and authentic, and having the courage to connect across lines of difference. Brene Brown talks about social courage in her book “Daring Greatly.”
  • Creative courage: Creating conversations that matter, creating solutions and creating communities.
  • Collective courage: Coming together for the greater good, such as in social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Or like Elon Musk, inspiring his SpaceX engineers and people around the world to find new ways to think about space.

“All of those kinds of courage might seem elusive,” Francis says, “but you can access them by leading from the heart and having self knowledge.”

Cultivate Your Courage as a Leader

That all sounds amazing, but how do we get there? I asked Francis how leaders can develop their courage. How can we all grow as people and as leaders?

She says it’s all about starting with yourself — leading from within. “Get clear on your own values and who you are as a leader,” she says. Ask yourself:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I want to bring to my work and my team? What do I want to contribute?
  • Are there places where I need to grow?

“That kind of reflection takes time, and it’s best done in a supportive place,” she says. She suggests journaling and having conversations with a trustworthy friend as good ways to start.

One of her favorite stories from the book is about a physician who was leading a major endeavor to build a new clinic. It was a big job and involved consolidating a lot of practices. The culture she started with came with a lot of hurt feelings and a lack of trust. As a leader, she started using poetry and metaphors during meetings as a way to get people to think outside the box. One day, she showed a video of a trapeze artist, flying through the air and feeling out of control, but knowing that there were safety nets below. The team used that metaphor to have conversations about how they were feeling, and they started to build trust over time.

Finally, it was time for the new building to open. When the week came, the IT systems were down and the sharps containers for needles hadn’t arrived. The leader worked late to make sure the building was safe for patients the next day. Later, she couldn’t sleep, so she started journaling. She asked herself: What is my role as leader in this time of excitement, chaos and disappointment?

She looked inward and realized that if she didn’t feel like going to work in the morning, her employees definitely wouldn’t.

So she wrote an email in the middle of the night to her team. She told everyone how grateful she was that they’d worked hard and come together, and referred back to that trapeze metaphor.

“She stepped back, breathed and thought about what she could contribute,” Francis says. “Writing that email to say thank you and encourage her team made everyone feel affirmed.”

Have Conversations as a Team

After you’ve looked inward and thought about your contributions as a leader, Francis suggests taking the conversation to your team. Ask each other:

  • Why are we here together?
  • What do we want to do?
  • Why is it important? What are our reasons for working here, beyond the paycheck?

“Maybe there’s a story from their childhood that inspired them to go into the work they’re in,” she says. “When we know those stories underneath and take the time to find out that level of humanity, we extend grace to each other more readily.”

Francis told me a story about a group of teachers who started off a workshop by talking about why they became teachers. That conversation allowed them to connect, and they then had an honest discussion about what they wanted to start doing and stop doing as a team. They all agreed that they wanted to start trusting each other and stop backbiting.

“Having conversations about what could be different gets everyone on board,” she says. “It’s not a single manager trying to figure it out, but everyone seeing their role in how things are or aren’t working.”

She says that this kind of open, courageous conversation is especially important for remote teams. She suggests using video calls so that the team can see each other, and she’s found that taking just a few minutes at the beginning of a meeting to ask how everyone’s doing leads to more grounded, less scattered meetings. “Maybe you find out someone took their son back to college this weekend and they’re feeling a little down, or they have a cold, or it’s a beautiful day and the flowers are starting to bloom in their backyard. It’s amazing the difference you find when you take the time to connect heart-to-heart. When we can tap into our core selves and recognize each others’ true selves, trust starts to flow.”

“If we can get more people encouraging each other to find our true self, we’ll have better workplaces,” she says.

Leaders: America Needs You To Be Its Batman

If you’re under 50, there probably hasn’t been, in your memory, a time of such paralyzing uncertainty. Sure, each decade since the 60s has seen its share of unpleasant news. The 60s saw JFK assassinated and the ramp-up of the Vietnam War. The 70s had Watergate, the fall of Nixon and the undignified scramble out of Vietnam. Jimmy Carter’s botched Iran hostage rescue marked the 80s, and the 90s saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. 2000’s Y2K was followed in close order by the dot-com bust and 9/11. While each of these periods carried its own signature worry, we seemed, as a country, to emerge with renewed optimism.

That was then, and this is now, as they say. We’ve had years of unrelenting bad economic news and more than a decade of wars. Our upcoming presidential election holds the entire country, perhaps world, in thrall. The Cold War appears to be warming back up, and companies – and their leaders – are doubling down on caution in the face of global economic uncertainty.

In the blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises,” Batman re-emerges after an eight-year respite, simply because his leadership is desperately needed by the seemingly-doomed people of Gotham. In a period of marked uncertainty, leadership is the key that opens the door to prosperity – and leaders don’t even need a utility belt.

While it is a leader’s job to manage for conservation of assets in times of uncertainty, it is also possible to lead by managing for growth. As leaders we must focus on expanding our capability to recognize and leverage both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation while accepting accountability for championing growth.

What does it mean to be a champion of growth? Here’s a short list of attributes I’ve observed in leaders who manage growth-oriented businesses – with my assessment of how those attributes contributed to a strong corporate culture, one tuned for growth and job creation.

Intrinsic motivation: great leaders are self-aware. They are driven by a personal commitment to excellence. They reward autonomy and collaboration in their organizations; their leadership style fosters a culture of accountability and rewards customer focus. These companies are built for growth. How can leaders grow this muscle? Stop being motivated by your benefits package and seek motivation in expanding your employees’ options and your customers’ satisfaction.

Focus: successful leaders are able to focus, and to shift focus when necessary to keep the organization moving forward. Focus requires emotional intelligence and the ability to understand how your actions will influence the actions of others. Leaders with excellent focus are also excellent motivators. If you lack focus, don’t despair; it can be learned with the help of a coach, a mentor, or a trusted advisor. (And there’s always Adderall.)

Empathy: some of the most successful companies of past years have been led by people with a reputation for a lack of empathy (e.g., Steve Jobs and Apple, Larry Ellison and Oracle.) While those companies have done great things, leading us out of a time of uncertainty isn’t on the list. Think about it: do you lack empathy? If so, it’s time to start considering the emotional consequences of your actions on others.

Socially adept: to be socially adept is to be able to listen, to communicate a vision, to accept feedback, to be open to change. Managers and executives who close themselves off from employees (or, worse, customers) risk losing competitive edge and market relevance. Social skills take practice. Listening takes patience and the willingness to put self aside. But the rewards are amazing. Practice active listening. Talk less and hear more. You may just hear the next big idea for your business.

Courage: I was actually going to write courage of your convictions here, but it’s really just simple courage. It’s so easy to pass on courageous behavior, but courage is the best weapon against uncertainty. Have courage. Be resolute and determined to succeed, and your employees will respond – as will customers. Sure, you’re staring down a gazillion new regulations and taxes. But have the courage to imagine hiring 50 workers, or 100. Have the courage to go first. People will notice.

It’s time to wage war – a war on uncertainty. If you’ve been a successful manager and steward of your company, you’re sitting on piles of cash. Put that cash to work, and put people to work. Be accountable, be self-aware, be empathetic, listen and have courage. Be a leader.

Others before us have done it. Now it’s our turn.

A version of this post was first published on on July 9, 2012.

Photo Credit: L.H. Photos via Compfight cc