Leading with Heart, Head & Guts

head heart and gut

Given the complexity and ambiguity of the current business environment and the high levels of employee disengagement, the traditional “smart and gutsy” model of leadership is no longer adequate. To maintain leadership positions into the future, leaders must be willing to harness all three sources of wisdom; heart, head and guts Organisations can no longer just look good – they must be good.  It is time to take a much more expansive and pervasive approach to our ‘duty of care’ as leaders. In this post, I explore the importance our connecting with the wisdom and compassion within our hearts and integrating this wisdom into our leadership and decision making.

Heart, Head & Gut Connection: An Overview

“We are at the very beginning of this rapidly unfolding journey of scientific discovery. […] We’ll need to move away from the dominant yet outdated ideas of the body as a complex machine of different parts, and toward the idea of highly interconnected ecological systems.” Dr Emeran Mayer

Our understanding of the complex systems operating within our bodies is continually evolving. Over the last decade, research in the field of neuroscience has expanded our understanding of the neural networks in our heart and gut regions.  Some researchers have gone so far as calling the neural network around our hearts the “cardiac brain” and the network in the gut the “enteric brain”. The research in this area is in its early stages and is still controversial.  I am not a doctor or a scientist, but I here is my summary of some of the research claims that I find most interesting.

The heart-mind connection takes place both by electrical signals (via the vagus and the spinal chord nerves) and through chemicals (the heart is also an endocrine gland). One small study to understand how the heart processes and decodes “intuitive information” claims that the heart receives intuitive information before the brain.  Other researchers have claimed that the heart has its own organising intelligence network, enabling the heart to act independently, learn, remember and produce feelings. The electromagnetic signal produced by a person’s heart rhythms has been measured in the brain waves of other people near them.

There is also a growing body of research on the mind-gut connection. Dr Emeran Mayer,  executive director of the Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at UCLA specialises in this field. In his book, “The Mind-Gut Connection” Dr Mayer explains that the connection between the mind and the gut is bidirectional: the gut talks to the brain and the brain talks to the gut.

“We now know that your gut mirrors every emotion that arises in your brain […] The brain is tied to the gut like no other organ, with far more extensive hard wired connections. Because people have always felt emotion in their gut, our language is rich with expressions that reflect this. Every time your stomach was tied up in knots, you had a gut-wrenching experience or you felt butterflies in your stomach, it was the emotion-generating circuits of your brain that were responsible. Your emotions, brain and gut are all uniquely connected.”

Another perspective on our three “brains” come from the work of Grant Soosalu – mBraining.  Soosalu describes the highest expressions of each of “brain” as compassion (heart), creativity (head) and courage (guts). Here is the how Soosalu describes the key functions of each “brain”:

Heart; processing emotions, values and your felt connection with others

Head; cognition perception, reasoning, abstraction, analysis, pattern recognition and meaning

Gut; core identity, self-preservation, boundaries, hungers, aversions and the impulse for action

Dotlich, Cairo and Rhinesmith have explored the roles of these three sources of wisdom in their book “Head Heart and Guts”.  Here is their overview of the role of the heart, head and guts in leadership.


  • Balancing people and business needs
  • Creating trust
  • Developing true compassion
  • Creating environments where people can be truly committed
  • Knowing what’s important
  • Understanding and overcoming potential derailers


  • Rethinking the way things are done
  • Reframing boundaries when necessary
  • Understanding the complexities of the global world
  • Thinking strategically without losing sight of short-term goals
  • Looking for ideas inside and outside the company
  • Developing a point of view


  • Taking risks with incomplete data
  • Balancing risk and reward
  • Acting with unyielding integrity in spite of difficulty
  • Tenaciously pursuing what’s required for success
  • Persevering in the face of adversity
  • Not being afraid to make the tough decisions

The Case For Change: Why We Need A New Approach To Leadership

“The significant problems we have, cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” Albert Einstein.

There has never been more challenging environment to navigate as a leader. The much-discussed forces of VUCA (volitivity, uncertainly, complexity and ambiguity) are very tangible, and these forces are compounding and accelerating around us. The pace of change we are experiencing today with be the slowest pace of change we will experience for the remainder of our leadership careers. The capabilities that ‘got us here’ as successful leaders today will certainly not ‘get us there’ as successful leaders in the future.  The leadership challenges of today and tomorrow demand new ways of leading and different ways of being.

The opening paragraph of “Head Heart and Guts” paints a compelling case for change.

“Complex times require complete leaders. Partial leaders struggle during an era of paradox, ambiguity, and unpredictability. To employ a one-dimensional leadership approach may have worked in simpler times, but in an environment of moral complexity and rapid shifts in attitude, social and political circumstances, economic conditions and technology, leaders must be capable of using their head, their heart and the guts as situations demand.”

Let’s consider the significance of just one important facet of the changing environment – the shifts in trust and customer expectations influenced by Gen Y.  Here is an extract from the recent EY report The Digitisation of Everything.

“Organisations that have succeeded in engaging with Generation Y know that, as well as accelerating the take-up of new digital technology, this generation poses additional challenges due to their evolving expectations. […] They are today the catalysts and the incubators of change, but each day their influence is growing in consumer and corporate environments, meaning that organisations must learn to engage effectively now, or risk being shut out of the game. To attract these young people, both as consumers and as employees, a company cannot just look good – it has to be good. […] Generation Y want to ensure that the organisations they engage with are authentic and not a hologram or mirage with a marketing ‘front’ that belies their reality.”

The significance and complexity of environmental, political and humanitarian challenges we face are immense.  Now more than ever, we need to take an expansive definition of ‘duty of care’ as leaders in business.  Leaders in business today have a responsibility to influence organisations to take a broader perspective. The world of business needs to lift its sights to lock into something bigger than narrow legacy definitions of performance and success. Willis Harmon, co-founder of the World Business Academy captures this imperative beautifully.

“Business has become, in this last half-century, the most powerful institution on the planet; it is critical that the dominant institution in any society take responsibility for the whole”

Global levels of employee disengagement are disturbing. OfficeVibe publishes real time employee engagement data from over 150 countries and 10,000+ organisations. At this time of writing this post 57% of employees surveyed would not recommend their organisation as a good place to work. The common-sense concept of the Service Profit Chain is still absent in many organisations – if you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers and performance will take care of itself.  I love Simon Sinek’s take on this concept:

“There is not a CEO on the planet who is responsible for the customer. CEO’s are responsible for the people who are responsible for the customer. Get that right and everyone wins.”

More and more, employees also want to do work that has purpose and meaning. Brene Brown’s Leadership Manifesto is an eloquent call to action for leaders, asking that we embrace vulnerability and ‘dare greatly’.

“When learning and working are dehumanised – when you no longer see us and no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform, we disengage and we turn away from the very thing the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas and our passion”

A New Model Of Leadership: Heart, Head and Gut

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”   Theodore Roosevelt

In order to future-proof our a leadership, we must consciously shed some of the conditioning of our past. In the past, leaders were rewarded for “head smarts” – being logical, calculating data-based decision makers. Creative problem solving skills has been added to the mix in more recent times. In some organisations “guts” make it into the mix. I believe that this “smart and gutsy” model of leadership is incomplete.

In the article ‘Neuroscience and the Three Brains of Leadership’ Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka share their perspective why we need to engage in all three centres of wisdom.

“Without heart intelligence, there will not be sufficient values-driven emotional energy to care enough to act on or prioritise the decision against competing pressures […] Without head intelligence, the decision will not have been properly thought through and analysed. […] Without gut intelligence there will not be enough attention to managing risks nor enough willpower to mobilise and execute the decision once challenges arise.”

I believe that leaders of tomorrow need to make important decisions first with their heart, through the lense of compassion, values and integrity, then use their head to figure out the “how” (using logic and creativity) and harness their gut courage and instincts to execute.

Care and compassion also needs to extend to how we look after ourselves. Too many leaders today are failing to prioritise and protect the “non-negotiables” that safeguard their own physical and mental wellbeing. Instead of flourishing, many leaders are struggling and wearing “stress and busyness” as a badge of importance. Lack of self-care in leaders creates dangerous cultural signals.

My Personal Journey: Connecting With CompassionIMG_3129

“Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’. Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’. They just use your mind and you never get the credit. It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it. 9 to 5, yeah they got you where they want you. There’s a better life, and you dream about it, don’t you?. It’s a rich man’s game no matter what they call it. And you spend your life puttin’ money in his wallet” – Dolly Parton

As a child of the 70’s, I grew up with the Dolly Parton song “9 to 5” playing in the background of my formative years. For me, this song became a kind of subconscious anthem for the working class, creating (at some level) an acceptance that work involved suffering.  I have spent the last 21 years in 18 different roles across 9 different organisations. During that time, I have had the honour of witnessing a great deal of human triumph, however I have also seen and experienced a heck of a lot of unnecessary human suffering.

I once reported to a senior male leader who gave me some feedback that I “cared too much”. He attributed his career success to “learning how to care less”. He advised me that if I had aspirations to climb into C-suite roles, that I also needed to learn to “care less”.  For I while there I actually bought into this idea – there was something alluring about the idea of being a bit more “numb” to the human struggles of the people you serve and lead. I suppose it felt like that might be an easier ride. On paper, my manager was a very successful corporate leader and had managed to climb his way into some very senior roles and very impressive job titles. However, over the years I reported to him (and later worked with him as his peer) I realised that I was very wrong to entertain the idea of “caring less” as a way to progress my career. I realised that caring deeply was vital to leadership success, the key was to “round out” deep care with logic, creativity and courage.

Using the VIA “Values In Action” tool to understand my signature strengths was a key turning point for me. Understanding that kindness and compassion was one of my “signature values” helped me to understand that to be an authentic leader I needed to embrace my kindness. This was incredibly liberating insight for me, as I had experienced many moments in the corporate world where “kindness” has been wrongly associated with being naive or “soft”.

Being good “on paper” is one thing. In the real world, the aforementioned leader with the “care less” strategy failed to garner deep loyalty across the organisation and as a result did not have a strong reputation for true delivery (the type of delivery that exists beyond PowerPoint and significantly and measurably shifts customer and employee experience). People simply did not trust him and the very first job of a leader is to inspire trust. Trust forms the foundation of our ability as leaders to lead through change and deliver sustainable performance. In the words of Stephen Covey “The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is the key professional and personal competency of our time.”

Dotlich (author or Head, Heart & Guts and former executive VP of several large companies) has worked with “smartest CEO’s” and believes that the key to their long term success and ability to earn respect and commitment was “their willingness to do what was right rather than take the easy or politically expedient course of action.”

This idea of heart, head and gut leadership deeply also resonates me because of my career experience in the area of customer-led transformation. I have spent many years leading and guiding dozens of Six Sigma and Lean process improvement projects and I am a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt.  In my early years applying Six Sigma, the impact we achieved often fell short due to the somewhat “elitist” nature of Six Sigma. It is an approach grounded in uncovering the statistical relationship between input and output variables and can easily create a divide between those trained to interpret a “R-Squared” value and those who are not. When I introduced Lean into my toolkit I was able to achieve far more significant shifts in performance. At its core, Lean is grounded in inclusive problem solving, harnessing the wisdom of the people who live and breath the process and demands that leaders “gemba walk” to go and observe where the work is done. More recently, have taken on roles leading  Human Centered Design functions.  Human Centered Design take the importance of emotional attunement to a whole new level, requiring leaders to develop deep empathy with the humans within the system. Empathy and compassion are the ‘tickets to entry’ for HCD  and the methodology demands that leaders deeply understand the unnecessary human suffering that bad design creates. Through this connection and understanding comes a desire to participation in the creation of a better way.

In Summary…

It is my strong belief that leaders today need to care more than ever before.  The ability to extend compassion to ourselves, our employees, customers and the communities in which we operate has become a critical success factor.  Leaders who continue to operate with an over reliance on cognitive skills are not equipped to deal with the complexity and ambiguity we face on a daily basis. The fear, ego and reactivity of ill-equipped leaders is a risk to healthy organisational cultures. We must harness the wisdom of our heart, head and guts to function in a connected, healthy and effective way.


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