Leadership is simply a series of moments and every moment gives you the opportunity to leave a positive legacy for those you lead.
In this ground-breaking book, award-winning leadership expert and business leader Dr Kirstin Ferguson has written a much needed practical guide for every modern leader. Whether you are the head of one of the largest companies in the world, supervising a small team or guiding your family, it will be your ability to integrate your head and heart that will influence your success in leading others and navigating our complex world.
Combining studies from leading thinkers in the field with her own new research and more than three decades of personal experience, Kirstin explains the eight key attributes of a head and heart leader, and provides the tools to measure your own approach. Along the way, she shares her conversations with modern leaders from a broad range of backgrounds whose stories will surprise you, challenge your thinking and inspire you to be the type of leader the world needs today.
Kirstin Ferguson herself notes wryly that an Amazon search lists 60,000 books on leadership, then commends the reader for having picked this one.
Ferguson's thesis is encapsulated in her title. In line with what is now orthodox management theory, Ferguson emphasises empathy and emotional intelligence. For her, leadership does not entail giving orders and demanding obedience, ticking boxes or paying lip service to teamwork and others' concerns.
Rather, her leaders draw on the collective leadership of those around them. They remain "humbled by the sheer complexity of the issues they need to resolve". These paragons "understand their limitations and have the strength to be vulnerable". Needless to say, they value feedback from their teams. Neither Hitler not Churchill would have qualified. Nor would Napoleon, Caesar, Ulysses Grant or Alexander Nevsky. Battle-scarred, world-weary know-alls here receive their comeuppance.
Ferguson assures the reader that these are considered judgements, again based on the blend of head and heart in her title. As her first, arresting illustration of her argument, Ferguson focuses on "a mere second within a single battle that lasted seven hours". The anecdote in question surprisingly involves a kiss on a cheek.
Just because there is a gross surfeit of books on leadership does not mean there are no lessons left to learn. The enduring popularity of Harvard's Getting to Yes attests to the enduring value of common sense, clear and coherent approaches to problems. Misguided traditionalists would reach much further back, seeking to unearth advice on management from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations or Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Neither of those authors, though, would have scored well on empathy.
Ferguson shrewdly starts by citing two modern leaders, a disc jockey and a television comedian, as role models for putative leaders. Both Ardern and Zelensky set the bar high, but Ferguson is quick to include an extensive and eclectic selection of other stories and personalities to illustrate her points.
She does not disparage judgement learned through the head, in the form of curiosity, wisdom, perspective and capability. Nonetheless, she treats more affectionately qualities associated with the heart, here defined as humility, self-awareness, courage and empathy.
Management guides run the risk of seeming trite, repetitive or self-evident. Ferguson's clever introduction of divergent points of view and sources of counsel enables her to evade those traps.
Confession time. Despite being a lifetime avid book reader - mostly literary fiction and history, thanks for asking - until this volume crossed my desk I was a leadership book virgin.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find that according to Kirstin Ferguson, everyone is a leader, including me.
On reflection, being editor of an industry magazine is a leadership role of sorts, and Kirstin Ferguson
I was board chair of the local primary school for a decade, a role for which I was unwillingly
shoulder-tapped but gradually came to embrace, with some expert coaching from an outstanding principal and support from fellow board members.
Ferguson, who has had significant leadership roles in her varied career, here blends her work experiences with her recent academic research into leadership, bringing it into focus with the help of many illuminating anecdotes leaders of all kinds shared with her in interviews. (Some years earlier, her PhD looked at leadership specifically in health & safety.)
There are quotes from these leaders which will resonate with anyone in a health & safety role, including this from BHP CEO Mike Henry: "When someone is willing to take a position on something and back themselves, then that is the act of a leader."
The author's thesis is two-fold: that all of us are leaders in some way; and that to be an effective leader you need to know when to lead with the head and when to lead with the heart.
The book has chapters for the four Head attributes (curiosity, wisdom, perspective, capability) and for the four Heart attributes (humility, self-awareness, courage, empathy.)
Perhaps the chapters on curiosity, perspective and courage will most resonate with Safeguard readers. There is plenty here for anyone interested in asking better questions and in creating psychological safety to enable them to be honestly answered.
Ferguson knows of what she speaks, recalling her days in the Australian Defence Force Academy, which she describes as having had the antithesis of a psychologically safe culture.
Having now succumbed to the allure of this most popular of book categories, I feel no urge to carry on with my wanton ways. I will ignore the siren calls of Simon Sinek, Brene Brown, and Jim Collins.
This book has challenged, illuminated and expanded my thinking on what makes for outstanding leadership at any level. It'll do me just fine.
If you’ve been eying a corporate leadership position or if you’re in an executive role now, you know how complex the work can be. There’s a reason people at this level gobble up relevant books and podcasts: Smart leaders know they need input from a variety of sources to stay on track, both for themselves and for their organizations.
If you’re planning your next read, one of these books might be just what you’re looking for.
Head & Heart: The art of modern leadership, by Kirstin Ferguson, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2023, $22.95. As an executive herself, and a former Air Force officer (in her native Australia), Ferguson describes modern leadership as a balance between head and heart. Accordingly, she provides four key attributes of the modern leader for each category. Then she further redefines leadership by assigning the principles to anyone, at any level who acts as a leader. As she explains, leadership is a series of moments, not a position of authority.
While Ferguson’s argument is compelling, U.S. readers might also appreciate the fresh perspective offered by an author whose examples range from the Pacific Rim where she is based, all the way to North America.
Twin Cities Pioneer Press
In two months alone, I have had the privilege to speak at major, well-attended business conferences offered to mostly HR people on employee engagement and the need to bring humanity back into human resources. Something must be going on here.
In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, leadership has transformed into a delicate dance between data-driven decision-making and a profound understanding of human emotions and experiences. Leaders of our time have realized that making critical decisions without considering the human cost is a near-impossible feat.
Becoming a genuinely influential modern leader hinges on the artful integration of leadership’s “head” and “heart” aspects. An esteemed leadership expert, Kirstin Ferguson, explores this concept in her groundbreaking book, “Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership.” Ferguson argues that effective leadership requires a seamless blending of head and heart skills, a fusion that allows leaders to reach their full potential.
Ferguson’s framework categorizes these attributes into two distinctive yet interdependent categories: head-based attributes and heart-based attributes. The former includes curiosity, wisdom, perspective and capability, while the latter encompasses humility, self-awareness, courage and empathy.
All great leaders share these eight essential attributes, but mastering the art of leadership is about understanding when and how to apply them effectively.
Let us delve into four attributes – rooted in the head and two in the heart – and explore their pivotal roles in modern leadership.
Wisdom: Wisdom is the bedrock of effective leadership. It involves a conscious evaluation of known and unknown factors, meticulous weighing of risks and rewards, the quest for data and evidence, and the eventual selection of the most prudent path forward. As Ferguson aptly articulates, “Leading with wisdom is more than the accumulation of information; it is about using information in a way that allows us to listen to others, evaluate their perspectives, and make informed decisions.”
To lead with wisdom, one must acknowledge their limitations, conquer the fear of rejection, and remain vigilant against the endless quest for more data. True wisdom emerges when leaders understand their decision-making processes, learn from past mistakes, and find a purpose beyond self-interest.
Perspective: Leaders who lead with perspective possess a profound understanding of the environment or context in which they operate. This understanding empowers them to make well-informed decisions about the best action. It entails the ability to anticipate future developments and grasp the implications of current information. Ferguson underscores this by stating, “Perspective helps us find order even when it seems chaotic, providing the ability to perceive the unfolding nature of events.”
Leading with perspective involves’ reading the room,’ whether it’s a physical space, a company, an industry, or the broader world. It also entails recognizing who is absent from the conversation and staying attuned to external factors that influence the situation.
Humility: Leaders who lead humbly are open to seeking input from others and readily acknowledge their limitations. They understand that some matters are beyond their control and are receptive to new ideas without viewing this as a weakness. A humble leader actively encourages learning from those around them, highlighting the strengths of their team members and placing importance on listening, observing, and learning through action.
“The greatest leaders are willing to admit they don’t have all the answers. They’re open to learning from others and understand that no one has a monopoly on good ideas,” says Richard Branson
True humility lies in recognizing strengths and understanding when they might be the least experienced person in the room. It’s about valuing the contributions of others and fostering an environment where learning and growth flourish.
Courage: Leading with courage entails standing up for one’s beliefs, even in the face of adversity or pressure to conform. Courageous leaders cultivate psychologically safe environments where team members feel empowered to voice their opinions. This form of leadership is rooted in the understanding that speaking up, not just for oneself but also for the benefit of others, is essential for growth and progress.
By leading with courage, leaders build relationships based on action and commitment to rectify wrongs or to take risks that lead to positive outcomes. Courageous actions can range from taking on new challenges to addressing performance issues or confronting inappropriate behavior within the workplace.
If you have followed this column or had you been attending my leadership training, you would have heard these same things articulated repeatedly.
Real effective leadership involves capability, competence, soul, and character. In other words, it integrates head and heart attributes and skills without which would make you wonder whether the leader really is or not.
Francis J. Kong