By Leah Claire Bennett, PhD

The Heart of Leadership


In today’s culture there is a cry for good leaders, ones who will stand up for what is right and lead by example. Leaders who will not be afraid to get their hands dirty or challenge the status quo. Leaders with Heart.


John Zenger and Joseph Folkman, two leading researchers in leadership, describe a model they refer to as the Leadership Tent (The Extraordinary Leader, 2009). They propose that all five poles of the tent are critical in building a strong leader. The poles include Personal Capability, Focus on Results, Interpersonal Skills, and Leading Organizational Change, with the center pole, or Heart, being Character.


But how much have we actually gotten away from looking at this central piece, the leader’s character? Does our society value the winner no matter how he or she got there? Today there are hundreds of posts or articles each month on ways to be a better leader but there are very few that focus on leaders’ character.


Character is defined as the mental and moral characteristics that are distinctive to an individual. They hold strong to their values and these values are ones that most people would agree are important. The five I would like to explore here are Open, Honest and Direct Communication, Respect for Self and Others, Accountability, Responsibility for One’s Choices, and Inclusion.


Open, Honest and Direct Communication: To be willing to speak the truth, whether it is popular or not, can be hard to do. Many people focus today on how to “spin” things so that no one will get their feelings hurt and everyone will be happy. This, however, is not being a leader with character. Most people appreciate hearing the truth even if it is difficult news. True leaders know how to be open with the truth in a direct way that motivates people to stand beside them and work hard for them.


Respect for Self and Others: Respect needs to always be paired with Open, Honest and Direct Communication because a good leader knows how to give difficult feedback to their team in a way that respects the individual. Being honest with someone is an opportunity to point out areas of growth and motivate others to better themselves. Self respect is also demanded of good leaders—these individuals know how to have good self-care such as good nutrition, exercise and plenty of sleep so they can be at their best each day at the office.


Accountability: Strong leaders are also not afraid of accountability, or as Webster’s defines it willing to be “subject to having to report, explain, or justify.” Having individuals in our lives that agree to hold us accountable helps us recognize when we’re off track more readily and it creates an atmosphere where people feel free to speak their concerns. Leaders are stronger when they are willing to step away from an entitled position of “I can do no wrong” and instead openly discuss when problems arise.


Responsibility for One’s Choices: One of my favorite character values is Responsibility, which means as a leader one cannot blame everyone around them for what happens. They must own their part. Leaders need to be willing to take ownership of the bad with the good. Leaders are the center of an organization and if they do not own mistakes, then no one else in the organization will do so either. This type of culture leads to everyone hiding mistakes, fearful of what will happen instead of openly learning from the problem. Pixar’s co-founder, Ed Catmull, emphasized in his leadership style that failure was the path toward success. This type of culture allows individuals to own mistakes by seeing what they learned from them and moving on towards a more workable idea. If leaders are able to utilize this strategy, it creates a culture of motivation and growth instead of fear.


Inclusion: Strong leaders create an atmosphere of collaboration and teamwork. They hire individuals with excellent skills and intuition and then allow them to make positive contributions to the team, without feeling threatened. Without this value some leaders lean toward not giving credit to their employees because they do not want to feel outshined. They also may just take all the glory from success for themselves. This, undermines people’s motivation to work hard and usually leads to an atmosphere of criticism and unhealthy competition.


You don’t have to look far to find a really bad leader these days—leaders who feel entitled to be in their position and do not care about those around them. They want the fame and fortune no matter what the collateral damage may be. My hope is that if leadership is part of your day, whether at home, work, or church, that you lead with strong character taking each of these values into consideration as you make decisions and drive for positive results. There are some who believe leaders are born leaders, but there is evidence that also shows that leaders can be taught. Be teachable, stay humble and make a purposeful decision to lead with Heart.





Leah Claire Bennett, PhD. is the Director of Pine Grove’s Professional Enhancement Program, and Professionals Recovery Track.