Great Leaders Encourage the Heart

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR


The most essential leadership function is not setting a compelling vision, shaping the environment, making decisions, or convincing people to go along with a plan. Whether in a corporate environment, higher education, the military, in community groups, or on the local playground, what successful leaders do differently shares some common elements. A plethora of business books and scholarly articles compete for attention by delineating the latest top five functions. They include a litany of the usual suspects: establishing the right priorities, developing effective executive teams, allocating resources, communicating with clarity, and leading with integrity. In contrast, the renowned leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner claim that leadership is an affair of the heart. Within this phrase lies the secret ingredient to leadership success. The best leaders encourage the heart.

An insightful HR adage claims that people do not leave companies, they leave bosses. In the eyes of the average staff member, the company, the college, the organization, or the institution is manifest through the relationship with their manager. After all, this is the person who establishes or enforces the rules, shares or does not share the necessary information, regulates the work environment, provides good or bad assignments, and doles out rewards and punishments. If the relationship with one’s leader/manager/supervisor is sour, it is nearly impossible for the work or the work environment to be sweet.

The endless debate about the difference between management and leadership bears some reference. It is clear, nevertheless, that management involves some elements of leadership and vice versa. For managers, department heads, or administrators at every level to exhibit leadership, they must focus on the things of leadership, and the most important might just be the hearts, minds, and emotions of those they work with. The Gallup organization, the Great Companies to Work For, and other research-oriented organizations have produced data that show that one’s feelings about their supervisor and work environment dramatically determine one’s work success — and therefore, the success of the enterprise itself.

One of the most important leadership lessons I have learned came from a department head who shared that the best boss he ever had was someone “who was excited about him.” Pausing and reflecting on this notion is worthwhile. In a simple and profound way, this small statement is a dissertation on the concept of leadership itself.

The classic book “The One Minute Manager,” gave us timeless and sage advice. It proselytized one-minute goals, one-minute praises, and one-minute reprimands. The One Minute Praise was about encouragement.

Stop for a moment every now and then and focus on the people behind organizational performance. Focusing on the faces, bodies, minds, and hearts that have many names is the real work of leadership. Inside each of them is likely to be a human being who appreciates being appreciated. Regardless of whether they are new college graduates, seasoned senior executives, computer programmers, or eminent scholars, everyone likes being liked, appreciated, recognized, and valued. Who else but leaders sit in the place to share positive sentiments as a matter of course. Parents and teachers have historically served in this valuable role. An accomplished chancellor of a statewide college system is known to repeat that everyone remembers their favorite teacher, but few remember what that teacher taught them. That teacher or professor noticed them, showed appreciation, showed them care, and encouraged them to reach higher.

Encouraging the heart can be done fairly easily. Three things that can help are time, attention, and positive reinforcement repeated. Take time to focus on others. “Take care of the people and the people will take care of the work” goes another management axiom. Do what can be done to lift others’ spirits, to inspire them, to advocate for them, to cheer them on. Great leaders make others feel good about themselves.

As different as the famous, contrasting, and bitter rivals of British politics — Disraeli and Gladstone — are the tenets of leadership. One focuses on outcomes and the other on the people who achieve them. The legendary story of a guest who had dined with them both a week before an election, was that after leaving dinner with Gladstone she was convinced that he was the smartest man in all of England. Yet with Disraeli, after dinner, he had left her feeling as if she were the smartest woman in all of England. The latter, clearly, was one to encourage the heart with his flattery. We all seek to belong, to feel appreciated, to be liked, and to feel worthy. It is a matter of the heart.

People seem to desire flattery, even if they know it is not entirely true. It is not necessarily about vanity, it is more about one’s ability to negotiate the trials and tribulations of life. Life, work, relationships, family, and all the trappings of the modern world can be taxing. Everyone seems to be able to benefit from having support, encouragement, and a kind sentiment. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one’s very own personal cheerleader? And wouldn’t it be a very cool job to be the person who could walk around each day metaphorically sprinkling good humor, good cheer, and magical dust that made others feel positive, important, and valued? This job actually exists today. It is called being a great leader. Great leaders encourage the heart.

Great leaders can provide the fuel that ignites the next breakthrough in any given field or discipline. By empowering people to reach higher, work harder, stay on task, focus on the highest priorities, and give it all they have, leaders accomplish extraordinary things. Outdated 20th-century methods focus on ‘minding the gap.’ That is, they focus on the delta between performance expectations and actual performance, and attempt to drive results with various management tools such as carrots and sticks, negative reinforcement, and management by objectives. Ideas such as those found in the employee engagement movement, the emerging field of positive psychology, and good human resources practice, all signal a new way of working that is grounded in thousands of years of successful practice. Great leaders make others the focus of their efforts and, specifically, by helping others feel positive, empowered, worthy, appreciated, and supported. Great leaders encourage the heart above all else.

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