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Heart and Edge: The Secret Ingredients of a High Performing Leader

When you think of a great leader or mentor who has had a positive influence on your life, how would you describe that person? Were they strong, fearless, driven, smart or were they a good listener, coach, understanding, warm, funny? We know that when leaders have too much heart, people walk all over them. When leaders have too much edge, people fear them. Can you have a combination of these traits – a heart of empathy and understanding with a strong edge of accountability and fear? The highest performing leaders know the answer to this question, and work on it daily.

Maybe you are a leader who knows the answer or wants to take your leadership performance to the next level. You might have already read several leadership books, watched numerous TED talks, and attended countless training programs. The real question you need to ask yourself is, “Do you work on your edge or your heart?” Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the most famous Italian philosophers and diplomats of the Renaissance period said, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”  In contrast to this viewpoint, today’s leadership research identifies the most effective leaders have a combination of a heart of compassion and an edge of accountability often referred to as “steel and velvet”. It is this healthy combination, that is developed over time, that leads to leadership success.

Starting with warmth, and not fear, is essential to successful leadership performance. People need to like you first before they follow you. If you want to influence another person, you must connect with them off the bat. It doesn’t matter if you have a title over someone or not; being a warm person facilitates a trusting environment with open communication and ideas. Your body language – a smile, an open gesture, a positive nod – can show people you are pleased to be in their presence and are listening and attentive to them.

According to an article by Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger in Harvard Business Review, it states, “The best way to gain influence is to combine warmth and strength—as difficult as Machiavelli says that may be to do. The traits can actually be mutually reinforcing.” Feeling a sense of inner strength helps people to be more open and less aggressive in stressful situations. When we, as humans, feel calm and confident, we project authenticity and friendliness.

It is challenging balancing heart and edge, especially because many of us are born or raised with a certain style of leadership that naturally favors one over the other. Self-aware leaders know that changing or improving a behavior takes time and can be very challenging. We form habits and negative self-talk that prevent us from making shifts in our leadership style for the better. This is a true test of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Are you able to manage your emotions and move away from old habits that might sabotage your highest performance? An emotionally intelligent leader can do this and is open to being vulnerable and receiving feedback without becoming defensive. Even when it is extremely uncomfortable, effective leaders know how to engage with others and prioritize their team to achieve overall success and happiness.

Research identifying the most important leadership qualities based on a study of 195 leaders in 15 countries over 30 global organizations highlights the importance of having both heart and edge. What does leadership heart and edge mean?

Heart/Velvet

This is the soft edge approach of leadership. These leaders demonstrate humility, listen without bias and build connections with others. They typically show the following traits:

  • Persuasion over raw power
  • Builds trust and shows confidence in their teams
  • Open to healthy conflict and wants to hear the opinions of others
  • Not afraid of being vulnerable
  • Want to engage with their team members on a personal and professional level
  • Warm and caring.
  • Let other team members lead and grow from challenges (or even mistakes) as long as they don’t jeopardize the team

Edge/Steel

These leaders use control and power to achieve their leadership success. They set high expectations for themselves and other team members. They typically show the following traits:

  • Hold themselves and others 100% accountable
  • Straight talkers and stand with conviction
  • Expect things to finish on time and within budget
  • Say or do things that might be unpopular

How do you show up with a combination of both even if you have a natural tendency towards one?  How do you utilize EI in your leadership style? Start by practicing self-awareness and identifying if you are a leader with more heart or edge. If you don’t know, ask others on your team. They will tell you.

If you have too much heart, here are some ideas to practice:

  1. Question if everyone on your team is performing to their highest performance. How can you set tougher short-term goals and push your team out of their comfort zone? Remember to stay strong and consistent in your leadership direction even if people complain or make excuses.
  2. Hold people on your team accountable. Allow them to have a voice and feel valued but be clear in your feedback. Have courageous conversations in a timely manner and preferably in the morning.
  3. If you are afraid you are going to hurt a team members’ feelings, quiet that voice and speak anyway because your feedback is valuable to their long-term success.

If you have too much edge, here are some ideas to practice:

  1. Create a culture where everyone feels their opinion matters and there is healthy conflict. The thing you should most fear is everyone agreeing with you.
  2. Learn how to place empathy at the center of all leadership and design decisions. You will supercharge your ability to produce breakthrough innovations.
  3. Listen more and try not to jump to a solution without hearing others’ opinions. Invite the person you might not be the biggest fan of, but has a stake in your company’s success, to your next meeting. You may even want to consider asking them to lunch.

In my leadership coaching and training experience, I see all types of leaders who each have their own set of challenges. Great leadership starts with you and your own authentic self-awareness.

“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” —Warren Bennis 

Becoming a great leader is something that evolves over time. This is hard in practice and needs to be part of your proactive growth to leadership excellence. Remember, it is this balance of heart and edge that is the key to becoming a high performing leader. Don’t give up on trying to achieve it and continue to practice EI because it really makes a difference on leadership performance.

Come see me at ACE 2018 from October 23-24 in Toronto to learn more about EI and leadership.

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About the Author
Bobi Seredich Headshot
Bobi Seredich is a recognized speaker, author, trainer and successful entrepreneur specializing in leadership development. She has spent over 23 years of her career dedicated to creating, directing, writing and presenting leadership programs for top companies in the U.S. and around the world.

Bobi is the co-founder of the Southwest Institute for Emotional Intelligence and Managing Partner of EQ Inspirations. In 2001, she founded Equanimity, Inc. also known as EQ Speakers – a speakers’ bureau and leadership training company. It fast became a top speaker bureau that booked hundreds of speakers with large Fortune 500 clients. EQ Speakers was sold in 2012 and continues to be a leader in the industry.

Her book, Courage Does Not Always Roar – Ordinary Women with Extraordinary Courage, was published by Simple Truths in the spring of 2010. The book is a collection of her experiences and stories of women who have had the courage to overcome very difficult life events.

Her passion is to guide individuals and organizations to a higher performance level through her own business knowledge, inspirational stories and leadership emotional intelligence training. Bobi lives in Phoenix, AZ with her husband, Roy, and 6-year old twins, Alex and Gia.

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