Last night I typed ‘leadership’ into Google and guess how many items were displayed? 640,000,000! Yes that’s right 640,000,000! It seems leadership is a much analysed topic. It is also quite subjective with some of us preferring the John Wayne style while others the Dalai Lama style.

According to Forbes some of the qualities that make a great leader include honesty, communication, commitment, positive attitude, creativity and inspiration. Leadership expert Simon Sinek says that the three most valuable leadership traits are selflessness, empathy and grace under fire.

When you think of great leaders, who do you think of? Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Teresa; the Dalai Lama perhaps? What about someone closer to home? Who springs to mind when you think about the great leaders you’ve experienced at work? What qualities and attributes did they have that made them a great leader in your eyes?

For me (and I suspect many others), the leaders I hold close in my heart are the ones that were genuinely interested in me as an individual; beyond the role, beyond the job, beyond the organisation. They engaged with me the person and trusted me to get on and do the job. Whether they realised it or not they were practicing heart-based leadership.

What sets heart-based leaders apart from other leaders according to Susan Steinbrecher, (business consultant and coauthor of Heart-Centered Leadership: Lead Well, Live Well), is their motivation. They are driven by authenticity and integrity rather than the pursuit of profit at any cost.  Steinbrecher says, in essence, heart-centered leadership is not a singular gold standard or an ultimate pinnacle that only a rare few can achieve. It lies in a leader’s ability to stop, go inward, and reflect on the course of action that they know is the right one rather than succumbing to external pressures and circumstances. According to Steinbrecher, leading from the heart is not just a nice idea or theory or some magical dream. By embracing a heart-centered approach to leadership, leaders will be in a more powerful position than they could possibly have imagined. After all, what can be more powerful than motivating a person to go the distance for you and your organization because he or she is inspired by you and respects you so highly? More importantly, you will genuinely and deeply touch the lives of others by your actions.

Steinbrecher says that if the following traits sound familiar, you may be a heart-centered leader (for simplicity I have categorised the list into beliefs, personal attributes, behaviours and intentions)


  • You believe that, given the right support, people rise to the occasion on their own and actually feel good about being held accountable.
  • You believe that people have positive intentions, even if their behaviour appears to illustrate the opposite.

Personal attributes

  • You are able to relinquish control. (As leaders, we don’t really have it anyway. Our people do. If you think that’s not true, try getting anything done without them).
  • You trust your people to do the right thing.
  • You tell the truth.
  • You are open-minded and do not judge or assume, but come to understand a situation or behaviour.
  • You have compassion for yourself and others.
  • You are empathetic and strive to maintain the self-esteem of others.
  • You listen before speaking.
  • You are not afraid to admit your mistakes


  • You know your impact and are mindful of how your words and actions may be interpreted in formal and informal ways.
  • You take care of your “whole-self” physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
  • You have an “open-door” policy.
  • You replace blame with responsibility.
  • You develop strategies that involve, promote, call upon, and inspire people to participate fully in creating, renewing, or revitalizing the organisation.
  • You create an environment where feedback is expected and appreciated.
  • You are willing to look in the mirror and come to terms with your own character flaws.
  • You surround yourself with people that have skills, talents and styles different from your own.


  • You aim to serve the people you are leading, not the other way around.
  • You strive to mentor others
  • You are committed to personal and professional growth.
  • You are committed to making a difference not only in your own life, but in the lives of your people and society as a whole.

In essence people like the way heart-based leaders make them feel and their performance generally reflects this feeling. Two renowned leadership scholars, Jim Kouze and Barry Posner, offer the following research conclusion:

….researchers looked at a number of factors that could account for a manager’s success.  They found one, and only one, factor significantly differentiated the top quartile of manager from the bottom quartile….the single factor was high scores on affection – both expressed and wanted…the highest performing managers show more warmth and fondness towards others than do the bottom 25 percent. They get closer to people, and they are significantly more open in sharing thoughts and feelings than their low-performing counterparts. All things being equal, we will work harder and more effectively for people we like.  And we like them in direct proportion to how they make us feel.

So to summarise, what makes a heart-based leader? In our experience heart-based leaders have a unique mindset which is based on the following assumptions:

  1. People are intrinsically motivated to do a good job. Heart-based leaders believe that if you look after the people they will look after the business (and will often exceed your expectations). Therefore the priority for a heart-based leader is to put their people first and create the right environment for them and the organisation to flourish. The heart-based leader sees their role as being in service of others.
  2. People will perform at their best when they are being themselves. Heart-based leaders recognise and engage people as individuals. They respect differences and ask questions rather than tell. They enable people to be the best they can be, both at work and in life.
  3. People have a need to belong and connect, even at work. It’s in our DNA. Yet in so many workplaces people are disengaged. They never receive feedback and feel that they don’t matter. Heart-based leaders have a genuine, authentic, empathetic and compassionate style that engages people and teams.
  4. To truly empower people requires the leader to trust and let go. Heart-based leaders are brave. They have a genuine commitment to truly empower people. They trust. They work with shared values and work on releasing the need for control.
  5. Heart-based leadership is a practice rather than a skill. Heart-based leadership requires self-awareness, self-compassion and vulnerability. Heart-based leaders operate holistically, engaging physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. They go within and work on their own character flaws. They are mindful of their words, actions and ego. They seek feedback and their intention is to continual improvement.

Does this sound like the leaders that you hold dear to your heart?