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Interview with Dr Kirstin Ferguson on Head & Heart

New book says leaders need both head and heart attributes to lead effectively


“You leave a legacy as a leader in every action you take, every decision you make and every behaviour you demonstrate.” – Kirstin Ferguson, ‘Head & Heart’

It was a heart-wrenching story of a military rescue in Afghanistan, where a U.S. Captain loaded injured and dying men into a helicopter - briefly kissing a bleeding, fatally-injured Sergeant as he did so - that prompted Dr Kirstin Ferguson to write ‘Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership’.

“It really started me on this journey of understanding what it means to lead with your head and your heart.

“Captain Swenson on that day absolutely led with command and control…he was so brave….yet he also in that single moment showed such humanity.”

In our interview Kirstin Ferguson shared her research on the attributes of head and heart leadership – a brief summary follows.

Leaving a Legacy

All leaders want to leave a legacy. No matter if we head up a corporation, lead a small team, or just do our job well – most of us aim to have a positive impact on those around us.

The most effective way to do this is by using our head and our heart, says Kirstin. We are capable of using both, but most of us lean more towards one than the other.

What is a Modern Leader?

Leading with head and heart requires us to rethink what a leader is in a modern context.

“Unfortunately, dinosaurs do still roam the earth in some organisations, and we know who they are.”

However, she says they are becoming few and far between. No-one wants to work with them.

Modern leaders like former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and President Volodymyr Zelensky demonstrate a new model of leadership by integrating their head and heart.

“I sit on boards and we are looking for CEOs who do get it", says Kirstin. "[CEOs] who understand you cannot progress unless you are a leader that people want to be led by.”

Free Download: 10 Leadership Qualities That Will Help Solve Challenges in 2023

Head & Heart Leader Scale

Already, 10,000 people have completed Kirstin’s free Head & Heart Leader Scale, developed with Professor Lisa Bradley at the Queensland University of Technology Business School.

Kirstin is an adjunct professor at the QUT business school, was formerly an officer in the RAAF, has been CEO of an international organisation, was at one time acting chair and deputy chair of the ABC, and has a PhD in leadership and culture. 

The Head & Heart Leader Scale is a set of 24 questions that help people self-assess how they currently lead with their head and their heart. Keep reading for the attributes of the heart-based leader and the head-based leader. 

What are the Attributes of a Heart-Based Leader?

Put simply, attributes of a heart-based leader include our emotions and how we view and are viewed by the world. They are:

Humility – In this context it’s about being prepared to seek out the contributions of others and being aware of your own limitations.

Self-awareness – Having insight into the impact we’re having on others. If you’re not self-aware you can be going through life making a mess. (Note: Growth Faculty's next book club event is Michael Bunting's 'Vertical Growth' on self-awareness in March)

Courage – Being able to speak up about things we believe in, particularly in the face of pressure not to do so. It can also be asking for a promotion or counselling someone on their performance (i.e. creating a culture of accountability).

Empathy – Kirstin says empathy can be a double-edged sword as too much empathy is not a good thing (Kirstin recommends ‘Against Empathy’ by Paul Bloom). For example, you can take on the emotions of someone who’s upset, and it can skew your sense of what’s fair and not fair. The most effective way is being able to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has a different lived experience to you (key to diversity and inclusion).

What are the Attributes of a Head-Based Leader?

All leaders need intellect and technical skills to grasp the tasks, roles and challenges they face. Head-based leader attributes are:  

Curiosity – We have a genuine thirst to fill gaps in our knowledge. Not just some things, anything. This attribute scored the highest in the tool's sample group.

Wisdom – All about making decisions. Assessing what is known and unknown, weighing up risk and rewards, searching for data and evidence, using reason and logic.

Perspective - In layman’s terms this is about being able to read a room and Kirstin calls it a 'superpower'.

Perspective in Kirstin’s research was the single attribute most highly correlated with all other attributes; "It’s a really great indicator of your ability to be a modern leader. It’s understanding the signals of the room, who’s missing from the room, looking at what’s going on outside the room, being a few steps ahead to really understand the implications of decisions that you’re making".

It’s an incredibly important skill, she says.

Capability – For anyone who’s a fan of the work of Carol Dweck (‘Mindset’) this is all about having a growth mindset, it’s not just being capable but believing you’re capable as well. The more capable you are, the more likely you are to build capable leaders as well within your team.

Applying Head and Heart Leadership Skills

The art of modern leadership is knowing which head and heart attributes are needed in any given situation.

These attributes are not set in stone, they are how you perceive yourself at a point in time. Kirstin says she encourages leaders to share their results with their team.

“Even if you just use it as a feedback tool to spark a conversation, I think you’re going to get some really interesting feedback.”

Facing Challenges Using Your Head and Heart

Kirstin is a heart-based leader and says that she finds it tough every time she gives challenging feedback.

“I know it’s part of the role of a leader and there’s a way it can be delivered with heart.

“When I was a CEO I had to sack people from their jobs which is an awful thing to have to do – no-one wants to do it – but you can do it the most effective way with head and heart by making sure that the process is exactly what it should be, and they’ve been well informed up until that point, and then there’s an awful lot of heart in explaining why this isn’t going to maybe be a good fit.

“I do think having that balance [of head and heart] makes it much easier to make those tough decisions and anyone in leadership needs to make tough decisions….it is our role. And doing it with head and heart is the only way to do it effectively.”

Leading Remote Teams with Head and Heart

Finally, what does Kirstin say about modern leadership and leading remote and hybrid teams?

“Culture is culture, but if you’re a leader of remote teams you do need to do a bit more work. You need to really make conscious and proactive efforts to communicate in ways that are meaningful for each of the people in your team.”

The simplest advice of all? Bring the person you are at home with you to work.  As Kirstin says:

“Just make some small steps to be a human leader and you’ll be amazed at the difference.”

Questions for Leaders and Teams from ‘Head & Heart

·       What does modern leadership mean to you? What will you need to do differently in terms of the kind of leadership you value and reward?

·       Which areas of your leadership do you feel are a work in progress? Who have you identified to provide you with feedback on how you are doing?

·       What attributes of your head and heart leadership are you planning to focus on? What do you plan to do differently in the future?

There are more questions on pages 273 and 274 of ‘Head & Heart’. 

Become a Better Leader with Growth Faculty 

If you want to further understand your individual strengths don’t miss our live virtual Global Headline event in May with organisational health expert Patrick Lencioni, author ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’. He will be guest of Growth Faculty for Patrick Lencioni: 6 Types of Genius in a Happy and Engaged Team.


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