Leadership Cross-training: It Takes Head, Heart and Gut

Effective leadership takes head, heart and guts. Are you strong in all three areas?

“Use your head.”

Many of us have been taught – in school, work and otherwise – to operate from our head. Intellectual curiosity. Thinking things through, memorizing, analyzing. Developing frameworks, concepts and theories. Seeking knowledge, accessing intellectual horsepower. Solving problems and planning ahead. These are all important. But they are not enough.

“Listen to your heart.”

I grew up wary of feelings and desires. Emotions like compassion, caring, empathy, sympathy, forgiveness, and love were important for romance and service to others, but I thought they should always be kept in check by the head. And feelings like sadness, fear, anger, embarrassment and shame – well, I had no idea what to do with those except to try to avoid them. Needless to say, ignoring or dismissing the heart limits the potential for fun, joy, meaning, connection and intimacy. Try to live like this and you live a flat-line life.

“Have some guts.”

There is a time to “just do it.” A time to finish weighing the pros and cons and stop gathering more data. A time to step through the fear and confusion and make the tough decision. A time to take courageous action. Guts with no head and no heart is like a loose cannon. And people who access only the head are at risk of living a “ready, aim, aim, aim …” life. Among other things, the gut helps us pull the trigger.

Which muscle is your leadership ‘go to’ muscle? Which one(s) do you need to develop? And how can you leverage your strengths to build your underdeveloped muscles?

Here are some tips for leveraging and developing each muscle:

  • Head – If you favor this muscle, use it to learn about the other muscles. Read or attend seminars on emotional intelligence. If you need to develop this muscle, collaborate with people who are strong in this area to help you think things through before deciding.
  • Heart – Strong here? Keep yourself and others in touch with the vision, purpose, passion and motivation that keep you going. To develop this muscle, ask yourself regularly what you really want, what’s frustrating you or stressing you out, and how you feel. Learn to articulate these things to a trusted friend or colleague who can help you integrate emotions and desires into your decision making and behaviors. Otherwise, keeping emotions at bay is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater; it takes a lot of extra energy, and you can only do it for so long before it pops up and splashes you or someone else. Emotional self-awareness is the first step towards the full range of emotional and social intelligence and to resonant leadership.
  • Gut – If you’re well-practiced in making tough decisions, keep it up and help others give themselves permission to do this, too. And leverage your determination and will-power to step courageously into the head and heart realms by pausing, thinking things through and being patient. To develop your gut, learn to discern and trust your instinct. Start small. E.g., time-box your decision about what to order off the dinner menu. Have a difficult or messy conversation without having it completely scripted. And, for us perfectionists, remember if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing “good enough” (not necessarily 100% right.)

The next time you consider how to develop your leadership, be sure to look at cross-training shoes so you can better cover all three terrains: head, heart and guts.

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Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his role as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps senior leaders and their teams develop and use their heads, hearts and guts for maximum effectiveness. You can reach him at jbaker@people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.