The Modern Leader: Using Your Head and Having Heart

May 24, 2021

Nelson Mandela said, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

In our life and work, though, we often choose one or the other.

For most of the 20th century, the business world valued only the head. Feelings and people skills didn’t matter. Just get the job done. (Instead, it seemed like being a jerk was a prerequisite for success.) This task-driven approach to leadership was heavily dependent on a left-brain addiction to linear logic, and American businesses flourished. Have spreadsheet and strategic plan, will travel. And so it was.

In the 21st century, though, the pendulum swung. People who grew up with parents from the automation age didn’t buy this head-centered approach to leadership. 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 were right.

But top business leaders know that Mandela was also right. You need both. You need a good head and a good heart.

Using Your Head

There are reasons why the analytical leader with intense drive is often successful — he or she is smart, focused, determined, and productive. 

And intense drive is important. After all, much of business remains dependent on left-brain logic, and it always will be. Michael Porter said, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Strategy equals choice. Strategy requires hard, purposeful thought.

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. 

You have to use your head for this. You don’t just want to feel good about a project; you want to nail it. Most business failures invariably can be traced back to overlooked flaws in the original plan or the daily execution. Even innovation is not simply finding the great idea deep inside but really hard head work.

What about you? Do you feel comfortable doing quantitative and qualitative analysis? Can you set aside personal frustration in order to stay focus? Do you consider risk when making significant decisions? Do you believe that playing your role well and steadying the business is a gift to your people? Do you know the key gauges and metrics for your department?

A smile and a handshake are helpful, but it’s often the toilsome work spent behind the scenes that will determine the success of the project. 

Having Heart

The realization of the heart’s importance to leadership in the last twenty-five years, however, was a long-overdue correction. Head-only businesses have a massive blind spot: People do not follow organizational charts or spreadsheets or 5-year plans — people follow people.

The re-appreciation of a leader with a high EQ (Emotional Quotient) was a breath of fresh air. The business world (including venture capital firms) slowly began to realize that not just our intellect, but all of our senses are crucial to accurate perception and decision-making. We need to listen not just to reason, but to our gut, as well.  

I remember after the Sago, West Virginia, coal mine disaster in 2006, the owner of the holding company of the mine hesitated on national television to say he would make a personal contribution to a relief fund for families. This was a guy who was a master at squeezing profit out of businesses. He was a master with his head, but in a time of human tragedy, he had disregarded the heart. It was a sad display of sound leadership. 

What about you? Are you able to easily empathize with those you lead? Are you known for strong connectivity and relationship building? Is it important to you to understand the situation behind underperformers? Do you feel a moral responsibility to help those around you succeed? Do you trust your gut in making decisions?

It’s not just about treating co-workers right (though it includes that). It’s about exuding to co-workers, customers, and clients that you care about making not just the right business decision but the right decision. Period. 

So you do a little extra customer service even though it doesn’t have an immediate payback. You encourage co-workers to go above and beyond on a project to help another department meet a deadline. If you’re a naturally left-brained leader, you ask for help and insight from those who excel at compassion and empathy. 

You need to see with the eyes of your heart along with calculating with the left-brain logic of your brain to most effective as a leader in the modern world. 


Eleanor Roosevelt said, “To handle yourself, use your head. To handle others, use your heart.” That oversimplifies it a bit, but it’s a great starting point. If you swing the pendulum too far either way, bad things happen.

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 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 under water financially.  Effective leaders constantly update their strategies and plans,  evaluating and re-evaluating the latest data shaping their businesses’ realities. 

At the same time, however, effective leaders don’t work on strategy 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.

Great leaders know that improvement and success depend on having heart as well as using their head.

Want to receive Steve's articles in your inbox?

Subscribe here.

We will never sell your information, for any reason.