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March 15, 1997

No More Head Cases: Having Heart AND Using Your Head

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One of the latest flavors of trendy leadership theory is the rise in popularity of “leading from the heart.” The re-appreciation of a leader with a high EQ (Emotional Quotient) comes as a breath of fresh air after the long, oppressive days when it seemed like being a jerk was a prerequisite to promotion to the coveted title of Headstrong Business Tyrant. But there were reasons why the HBT rose to success—he or she was smart, focused, determined, and productive. And we still need their skills in the modern marketplace. Is it really possible to embody both skills? I say yes.
The realization of the heart’s importance to leadership, however, was a long overdue correction. The traditional choleric, task-driven approach to business was heavily dependent on a left-brain addiction to linear logic. In this incarnation, the essence of every business—it was thought—could be mapped on organizational charts and spreadsheets. Maybe so, but such businesses had a massive blind spot: Human capital or real people management.
It took a generational shift to correct this imbalance. People who grew up with parents from the automation age simply did not buy it. They recognized the reality of the emperor’s lack of clothes and did not mind saying so. They saw the life carnage of that world and refused to sign up. When they were old enough to start their own businesses and write their own business books, they wrote a very different story. They saw that every business transaction is actually a human interaction. They knew that not just our intellect, but that all of our senses are crucial to accurate perception and decision-making. They knew that we need to listen not just to reason, but to our gut, as well.
After the 2006 Sago, West Virginia, coal mine disaster—a cave-in resulting in 12 deaths—the ABC news magazine PrimeTime Live interviewed Wilbur Ross, the then billionaire takeover mogul who owned the Sago mine. Ross squirmed under ABC’s grilling questions about the safety of the mine and his complicity. To try and make the best of a PR disaster, Ross explained that his holding company had given $2 million to start a fund to help the families of the victims of the accident. Then ABC’s reporter asked a question for which the heart would tell you there was only one right answer.
“Have you personally put any money in?”
It was a million dollar question for a man who’d made billions spotting troubled companies, buying them cheap, turning them around, and making huge profits. But all he could offer was a ten-cent answer.
“We own about a third of the company,” he said, “and we will decide what to do about a personal contribution as we see what comes in from outside.”
Ross, a master at squeezing profit out of businesses that others discarded as worthless, had made an unforgivable mistake as a leader. In a time of human tragedy, he had not acted instinctively from his heart. He appeared far more concerned about “corporate chess moves” than about “personal concerns.” Although his head seemed to be represented, his heart looked to be on vacation.
There are those of us left-brained leaders who still need tutoring in right-brain efficiency. If that’s you, one of the easiest ways to increase your EQ, or heart-based leadership ability, is to constantly query those around you who are naturally your opposite. You need to see with the eyes of your heart before you can factor the left-brain logic of the world more effectively into your leadership maximization equation. Empathy is a capability nurtured in both sides of the brain.
With that said, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Business is not a séance session. Some of us need to come back to earth and deal with reality. A business that is all heart and no profit will be soon be empathetically hugging people as they go out the door just before the lights are turned off. If you aren’t using your head, then don’t be surprised when your heart finds itself in a world of hurt.
Much of business remains left-brain dependent, and it always will be. The bottom line is still the bottom line. Every business deal is a very complex series of chess moves that must be mapped on a moving board with multiple threats on all sides. The more complex a business decision is, the more time and energy must be spent understanding every little detail and how each part fits into the whole. A smile and a handshake are helpful, but it’s often the toilsome work spent behind the scenes that will likely determine the success of the project. You don’t just want to feel good about a project; you want to do good.
Even the most careful sometimes are not careful enough. NASA is as left-brained as they come. Yet the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger just after takeoff exposed the tragic mistake that something had been missed. The culprit, they learned, was the faulty design of a simple O-ring gasket. The pre-launch planning had not been thorough enough.
It only takes one O-ring failure to blow any business apart. Business failures invariably can be traced back to overlooked flaws in the original plan or the daily execution.
Effective leaders constantly update their strategies and plans, evaluating and reevaluating the latest data shaping their businesses realities. At the same time, however, they don’t do it in a vacuum that locks out emotions. They understand the very real economic value of relationships and the harsh consequences that await an organization that neglects its human capital and its social responsibilities. They understand they have to take ownership of the decisions they make with their heads, and that they can’t delegate leadership that comes from the heart. So they’d better get to work improving both.

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