Putting the heart into leadership

2 December 2019   By Alison Maitland

Understanding your impact as a leader helps you to empower other people more effectively. It is achieved, partly at least, by connecting with your heart, not just your head.

Take the example of Michelle Obama, who treated her role as First Lady of the United States very seriously indeed. In her memoir, Becoming, she relates how she connected with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, an outstanding all-girls’ school in London

Cover of ‘Becoming’

where 90% of students were from ethnic minorities. She delivered an emotional speech, wrote them letters of encouragement, took a group to Oxford University and welcomed some of them to the White House.

The impact of her interventions was studied by Simon Burgess, an economist at Bristol University. Most of the evidence he gathered showed that the inspiration the girls gained from interacting with the First Lady translated into substantially higher performance in their GCSE exams.[1]

Obama says the credit belongs with the girls, and the findings affirm that children will invest more when they feel they’re being invested in. The experience made her more aware of her own influence. ‘I understood that there was power in showing children my regard.’

The same is true of adults. We flourish when we know we are valued, respected and believed in. Yet some leaders do not understand – or do not care about – the impact of their actions.

Too often, the heart connection in leadership is missing.

The consequences can be negative, both for people and for business outcomes. Companies that conduct mass layoffs during an economic downturn underperform competitors that avoid job losses, despite the initial cost savings, as Sherrie Haynie of The Myers-Briggs Company points out in an article in Forbes. This is because of the damage done to the psychological contract between employer and employee. Businesses that conduct mass layoffs often lose some of their best talent in the aftermath, as loyalty, motivation and trust fall away.

Given this evidence, why do some companies persist in mass layoffs? She suggests it is because Thinking personality types dominate the top layers of corporate leadership, and Feeling personality types are under-represented.

The Thinking-Feeling dimension in Myers-Briggs profiles relates to how we make decisions. Those with a Thinking preference like to make decisions in an objective, logical way, on the basis of impersonal criteria. Those with a Feeling preference like to make decisions based on values, taking account of individual and personal circumstances.

Having a mix of these preferences in a leadership team seems like a good idea. Yet more than two-thirds of people in leadership positions have the Thinking preference, according to Myers-Briggs research. What’s more, 70% of women in leadership roles also have this preference, even though most women in the population have the Feeling personality preference.

Haynie says it’s likely that an unconscious bias against Feeling types is yet another reason why women are under-represented in leadership roles. ‘The unconscious bias against Feeling types in leadership may be deeply ingrained in our culture – so much so that many women may even have a bias against their own leadership style and doubt their capabilities.’[2]

The consequence is that not enough attention is paid to how people are likely to be affected by decisions. This means everything from big decisions, such as mass layoffs, or Brexit, to small decisions, such as who gets invited to a meeting at work, and who doesn’t.

What can be done to rectify this imbalance in personality types at the top?

One way is to highlight these differences in the population as much as we can, and explain why it’s important to have a mix of them, so that leaders, hiring panels and individuals are aware that they need to recruit a range of personality types.

To achieve this, Feeling must also be repositioned as a key leadership attribute. It tends to be undervalued until its impact is overtly and intentionally recognised.

I’ve seen this in Collective Leadership, a programme run by PresenceAtWork in which I’ve participated. The dimensions of leadership are expressed differently from Myers-Briggs – by means of a profile of four strengths for each person – but there is the same understanding that it is important to have a mix of profiles in any team.[3]

One of the nine core strengths used in this programme is the ‘Integrator’, which is about being inclusive and making sure that everyone is on board, and that no one gets left behind. This is a strength connected to the heart.

Katherine Woodhouse, Director of Quality at Skanska, has this strength, but she had hidden it until she discovered its importance through the programme and learned to embrace it. ‘People like having the Integrator around, but it’s not usually recognised as a leadership strength,’ she says. ‘It was cathartic to realise that my inclusiveness is powerful, and a required leadership trait that builds better teams and performance.’

The significance of the mix is also demonstrated by Bart de Goede and Hermen Koole, who lead Ygrec, a Dutch financial consulting firm, and have participated in the Collective Leadership programme. According to the programme’s LBSI© strengths assessment, De Goede is an innovator, who is creative and pragmatic about finding solutions. Koole is a visionary, a thinker and an integrator.

De Goede gives an example of why this blend of personality strengths matters, even in small, everyday decisions. ‘We had a meeting to look at progress on some new processes for scanning invoices and storing documents. I would have invited just the people who were important to the topics. Hermen brought everybody in, because we’re also building a team.’[4] Koole was drawing on his Integrator strength, knowing that it was important for morale that everyone participate in the meeting.

Once you understand your strengths and impact explicitly in this way, it is much easier to know how to use them, and how to work with other people’s complementary strengths and impact to build both individual and team performance.

This is an edited version of a column published by IWE on 10 Nov 2019

©Alison Maitland 2019, all rights reserved.

[1]‘Michelle Obama and an English school: the power of inspiration’, Simon Burgess, Department of Economics, University of Bristol, June 2016: http://simonburgesseconomics.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/EGA-paper-20160627.pdf

[2]‘Unconscious Personality Bias Keeps Women from Leadership – and Costs Companies’, Sherrie Haynie, Forbes Councils Member, 17 Sept 2019: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2019/09/17/unconscious-personality-bias-keeps-women-from-leadership-and-costs-companies/#6bc7c5e81358

[3]Collective Leadership is run by Presence at Workhttps://presenceatwork.com

[4]From ‘The Leader Being Strength Indicator’, Alison Maitland and Roelien Bokxem, Presence at Work: https://presenceatwork.com/public/img/raw/82.pdf

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