Leading with Heart & Backbone: How Balanced is Your Leadership?

connection courageous human-centric Dec 21, 2023

Although seemingly opposite, heart and backbone are necessary counterparts for effective and meaningful leadership. When we lead with our heart, we leverage emotional connections to inspire our teams. When we lead with our backbone, we competently handle difficult situations, and share accountability and responsibility to earn respect and loyalty. When we harmonize these approaches, we win the hearts and minds of those we lead, ensuring their commitment to achieving our vision and objectives.

A primarily, or exclusively, heart-based approach is not indicative of an inability to make tough decisions. It means that when facing a tough decision, we prioritize the personal impact it may have on an employee or team.

Effective leaders with highly engaged employees know how to capitalize on commitment and get results from their teams. At the same time, they are regarded as being empathetic, trusting, and collaborative, and they excel at nurturing the professional growth of their team members.

To strike a successful balance, leaders need to be both tough-minded and tender-hearted. Research indicates this results in happier employees: a Zenger and Folkman study of 60,000 employees at hundreds of organizations worldwide reported that those who worked for leaders who led with both heart and backbone scored in the top 10% for overall satisfaction and engagement.

Though this represents a relatively emergent understanding of effective leadership, this is not a new theory. Despite being over 2500 years old, the teachings of Lao Tzu, the first Chinese Taoist philosopher, remain relevant to resolving contemporary leadership challenges. Taoism suggests that Yin signifies feminine energy, instinct, and gentleness, all of which can be correlated to heartfelt leadership. Yang signifies masculine energy, rational thought, and assertiveness, all of which can be correlated to leading with the backbone. Tzu suggests that leaders must decide which is the most effective approach in each situation in order to achieve harmony.  

The relationship between heart and backbone is a lot like the relationships in a family. When we genuinely care about someone, we know we must be supportive and honest with them to keep them on track, even when these sentiments aren’t welcome. Despite occasional resistance, this approach works because we have our family’s best interests at heart, and that feeling is reciprocated.

We can see this clearly in solid parent-child relationships. Parents face the constant challenge of balancing the tension between heart and backbone. They have immeasurable unconditional love for their children so their hearts guide them as they build relationships that are nurturing and supportive. But as parents, they also know they must set boundaries along the way and serve as disciplinarians to guide their children’s growth.

Undoubtedly, there are moments when we question ourselves and doubt our resolve, but if we truly believe in our convictions we are able to stiffen up our backbones while handling difficult situations with compassion.

This dynamic is highly relevant in leadership roles as well. Leaders need to believe in the potential of others, and be encouraging, accepting, trusting, and understanding. At the same time, they need to be clear, provide structure, and handle challenging circumstances and conversations. The effectiveness of leading with heart and backbone can be measured by the willingness of others to help us achieve the purpose and vision at hand.

Renowned leadership authors Kouzes and Posner (2002) conclude their book The Leadership Challenge with the statement, “Leadership is not an affair of the head. Leadership is an affair of the heart.” In other words, leadership should be grounded in the heart and supported by the head.

Leadership is more art than science. To be truly effective, you must balance the emotional with the rational. When you lead with both your heart and your backbone, you cultivate relationships, foster trust, and unleash inspiration.

How balanced are your heart and backbone in your leadership role?


About the Author

Sandra McDowell, MA, PCC, CPHR, SHRM-SCP

As the founder and voice behind eLeadership Academy™, Sandra McDowell helps leaders and organizations increase performance and well-being by leveraging neuroscience insights to harness the untapped power of the brain.

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