When Leading With Your Head Isn't Enough

The recent earthquake in Port-au-Prince thrust Dr. Paul Farmer back into the media spotlight—and reminded me of the remarkable leadership skills that have helped make Farmer a renowned champion of global public health. Farmer, founder of the international nonprofit Partners in Health, has spent decades successfully battling AIDS, tuberculosis, and other diseases in Haiti, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, and elsewhere.

Tracy Kidder's best-selling book Mountains Beyond Mountains reveals Farmer as a passionate, expressive, charming, and thoughtful physician. His charisma has helped him build close bonds with everyone from desperately ill patients to the diplomats, business titans, and students who have lined up to advance his work on behalf of the poor. Whether he's writing personal thank-you notes to donors or trading quips with a staff member at his clinic in Haiti, he's a master of leading with his heart. And he has saved countless lives as a result.

But not every effective leader is blessed with Farmer's personal magnetism. In fact, in my experience, most of us are not—and to try to pretend otherwise is a sure path to trouble. The truth is that building strong emotional ties with our allies and organizations can be a real challenge for most leaders. Many of us are more naturally inclined to lead with our heads through strategic planning, extensive analysis, and a steady temperament. That approach has generally suited me well. It worked, for instance, when I flew airplanes for years in the U.S. Navy, sometimes under quite stressful circumstances. And it has helped many leaders make tough business decisions in the harsh economy of the past couple of years.

Personal Connecting

But leading with our heads is also the same trait that tempts us to head to the running trails for a solo workout at lunchtime instead of walking around to chat with colleagues. It's what prods us to leave a room as soon as a meeting is over to get to the next task, instead of sticking around for a few extra minutes to connect with colleagues on a more personal level. We can genuinely like the men and women we're privileged to lead, and we can very much enjoy listening to and learning from them.

Many of us, however, might not feed off these interactions quite the way Farmer does. In many respects, that's a good thing for a leader; it's important to maintain independence and a little distance. But, like any leadership strength, self-reliance and playing things close to the vest can be overdone.

In hard times—and we're living through them right now—leading with our heads is not enough. Our men and women need more than sheer business expertise, whether it be a smart strategy, the right organizational structure, or clever technical solutions. As my colleague Kerry Bunker has explored in his groundbreaking work on leadership and authenticity, people also want honesty and humanity. They crave authentic connections to their leaders.

Without those ties, it's hard for leaders to build trust with their people—and without that trust it's hard to accomplish much. In many organizations, including mine, our colleagues are working more hours for less pay and benefits. They want their sacrifices acknowledged. They want to know their leaders care. I do care, and so do many other leaders. But how do we convey those feelings effectively?

There's no easy fix. But we can start by taking our routines off autopilot. Then there are some practical steps we can take. The more you practice them, the better you'll become at connecting with your men and women. Here are four skills to work on right now:

Listen (to groups and individuals)

Now more than ever, you need to be a Chief Listening Officer in your organization. Make sure you devote several meetings each week simply to listening to clients, colleagues, and advisers. When you're in these meetings, focus on the present. Turn off your BlackBerry and shelve the to-do list in your head. Maintain eye contact, lean forward, nod. Show you're engaged. Just as significantly, pay attention to what the other person is expressing, not only with their words but also through their tone of voice, facial expressions, and posture. Can you accurately summarize the thoughts and feelings being shared with you, or are you already thinking ahead to the next thing?

Be visible

It's tempting and often logical to eat a quick lunch at your desk to give you the chance to make phone calls, plow through a pile of reports, examine the latest metrics, and read urgent e-mails. Meanwhile, your colleagues are down in the cafeteria wondering why they never see you except at companywide meetings. Make a point once a week of sitting down at a table and joining them over lunch. Or drop in on a department staff meeting. You don't even need to say anything—just showing up conveys that their work matters to you.

Show gratitude

A word of thanks to an overworked, underappreciated employee or group can make a huge difference. I've seen it happen. Maybe you're not the type who thrives on praise, but a lot of people do. It's even more important when a bad economy handcuffs your ability to reward them financially. Zero in on a contribution you particularly appreciate and explain why it matters. Be specific, and they'll know you understand something about their role—and that makes your praise all the more believable and meaningful.


Ensure that your teams are engaged in meaningful work and that you have good development plans for their members. If things are slow for one team, turn its members loose on key projects that are important for the future of the organization and that will help build their skills. Nothing is more important than showing interest in the professional development of your women and men—so invest now in the training they need.

There's no guarantee that following this advice will suddenly help you lead as authentically as Paul Farmer. But at the very least, we can all get considerably better at connecting with our men and women through focus and practice. Indeed, we need to make leading with our hearts a priority. When we don't, we jeopardize all the magnificent plans in our heads.

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