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Truly Good Leaders Lead with the Heart, NOT the Head

Ken Chen

Ken Chen

June 3, 2014

If you haven’t had the chance to watch Simon Sinek’s latest TED Talk, it’s another good one:


As you might guess, I couldn’t agree more with him. In my experience, I’ve worked with 50+ managers and clients. Only a handful are truly great leaders.

Here’s an easy exercise. Take a minute to think about who your favorite managers were — the people you look up to; the ones you respect and would go the extra hellish mile for.

Why might the list be so small? The way we select leaders in American business is at the heart of the problem. We like to choose leaders based on their pedigree (what schools they went to, which companies they worked for, what titles they’ve held, what powerful people they know) versus what’s inside the person.

You may think it’s hard to figure out what a person is really made of, but the best place to start is to ask the people who were led by them — the very same people who have been in the pressure cooker with them.

One great resource you can check out is Glassdoor, where employees and job seekers post anonymously to give an inside look at companies. Otherwise, here are some ways you can get more insight:

  • Ask for references from the prospective leader, including teammates from any sports teams they’ve played on.
  • Use LinkedIn to find 10 people the person worked for in the past who were not on the reference list. And, if at all possible, find a few people who have played a team sport with the person and are NOT on his/her reference list.
  • Key Metric #1: Track the percentage of how quickly those 10 people respond. I would think a great leader would have a very high percentage of people responding quickly. If it’s crickets, you’ve got a problem.
  • Key Metric #2: Interview those 10 people. After you ask textbook questions about their experience and business results, ask simple questions to get at their character:
    • Would you invite this person to your home for dinner?
    • Did you ever see he/she helping someone when they were not looking?
    • What did this person do under times of crisis?

I’ve played team sports for 30 years. One of the many reasons I love playing is that I think it reveals character, integrity and empathy — sometimes in a dramatic way. When a team is losing or slumping, or a referee’s call has not gone your way, or a teammate gets injured or sick, or a member of the other team does something disrespectful to your teammate… Who steps up with actions or words? That’s a leader. And, a really good leader leads with his heart, not his head.

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