Is it better to be a strong leader, or a warm leader?
If you were to ask the people you work to describe you, would they say that you are a strong leader, or a warm leader?
We posed this question to a cohort of senior leaders who were completing a four-month long executive development program called Finding Your Leadership Edge, or FLE. During that time, our coaching team led by my colleague Meribeth Germino of Genentech guided these executives through a inner journey that revealed new possibilities and resources for greater impact. In this particular session, we explored a common dilemma that leaders face in tough situations: should I meet this challenge with strength (e.g. speak up or be decisive) or with warmth (e.g., show vulnerability, or listen). By a show of hands, the room was roughly split in half. Who was right?
Why strength and warmth matter in leadership
In Connect, then Lead, Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School explains that, of the many qualities leaders have, the way they exhibit strength or warmth will pretty much determine whether others will want to follow (or not). Her research shows that the most effective leaders are the ones who effectively combine warmth and strength behaviors. Case in point, in a study where 50,000 leaders were rated in their likability and leadership effectiveness, the least lovable leaders (bottom 25%) had only 1 chance in 2000 of being perceived as effective leaders.
Yet "strong" leaders are often the most rewarded. Charles O’Reilly of Stanford University who studies the narcissistic CEO archetype found that these executives are paid significantly more and remain in their jobs far longer than their less narcissistic peers. The problem is that the companies they lead do not perform better. In fact, as discovered by Jim Collins who looked at the performance over 40 years of more than one thousand companies, the organizations that sustain high performance over the long-term are the ones led by CEOs "in whom genuine personal humility [warmth] blends with intense professional will [strength]".
This is not a mind-blowing concept, and you're probably nodding as you read this. But how many leaders do you know who do this well? As I reflect on my own experience, this is probably one of the hardest things to get right when you are “out there, in the wild”. After years of leading innovation or change programs, I am still learning how to avoid being too warm (and lose momentum) or too strong (and lose people along the way). As my husband Henry says, "this is intellectually simple, but behaviorally complex".
So we knew that bringing in a speaker or handing out business books at the FLE was not going to generate the kind of breakthrough experience we were looking for. We needed something to shake things up and create a felt sense of what it is like to be both strong and warm. That's where Flamenco came in.
Strength and warmth in flamenco
Outside of my work life, I am a flamenco dancer. I started dancing when I was six years old, and I haven't stopped since, experimenting with different styles and traditions until I came across this Spanish art form made popular by the gypsies. Flamenco is the perfect marriage of strength and warmth, and like a marriage between people, the more you get into it the more there is to learn. In a live flamenco performance, you'll see dancers in colorful costumes burst into rapid footwork while drawing graceful twirls with their arms and hands. Without speaking a word, they are in constant dialogue with the singers and the musicians, and together they create a unique expression of life itself, a steady flow of ups and downs, passion and stillness, joy and sorrow. A good example of what I'm describing is Sara Baras dancing Alegrias (joy) in Carlos Saura's film Flamenco.
We invited San Francisco’s La Tania Baile Flamenco Company (pictured above) to join the FLE program and teach our leaders how to embody both strength and warmth:
First, to experience strength, our newly minted (and very brave) "executive flamencos" passionately broke into golpes (blows, in Spanish), stomping on the floor as if their legs were hammers driving nails into the ground.
Then the time came to switch gears and focus on warmth only, by twirling our hands in flores (flowers) movements while holding in our mind's eye an image of lovingly stroking our child’s hair, or our favorite pet.
Finally, we brought it all together, "hammering nails” with our legs while “fluffing hair” with our arms and hands. Around the room, you could see all range of reactions, from surprise, awkwardness, despair, focus or sheer amusement. Being strong and warm was not a cake walk, but by reflecting on their somatic experience, our executives came away with some powerful insights.
Tapping into your hidden strength and warmth
While some leaders preferred stomping over hand twirling (or vice versa), everyone without exception was able to perform both movements. How often do we hear people in the workplace say things like "I'm an introvert, that's just the way I am" as a reason for not socializing with their team (I am an introvert myself, so I'm speaking from experience)? Some of our self-identified "strong" executives, for instance, were surprised that the softer movements were easier, more natural. There was more warmth available to them than they were previously aware. I like the analogy of the x-ray and the infrared machine. If I take an x-ray image of your body, you show up as all bones. If I use an infrared machine instead, you show up as heat. You are in fact both bones (strength) and energy (warmth), what you get to see depends on the instrument used to take the picture. Our awareness can be calibrated to see more of what we (already) have so that we can put those resources to work.
Practice, courage and support
Stomping while hand twirling is not trivial. What distinguished the flamenco artists from our executive clients were decades of practice, discipline, trial and error, and great teachers and mentors. It took courage for successful executives to get up in front of their peers and try out something new and foreign, and look silly, laugh, ask for help with their moves, persist, and have compassion for themselves and others to find their own strong-warm way of showing up. With that felt sense in their bodies, our clients set an intention for their very next leadership interaction:
“I will bring strength into the room by ________________________, and I will bring warmth by _______________________________.
Try this out yourself and let me know how it went!
Two sides of the same coin
At the end of the day, you cannot have one without the other. It takes real strength to be warm, like taking accountability for a mistake even though it might be easier to walk away or pretend it never happened. It also takes real warmth to be strong, like that manager that pushed us to take a risk because they wanted the best for us. I think of the legendary flamenco dancer Enrique “El Cojo” who had a tumor in his left leg as a child but had the strength to overcome his handicap and achieve mastery. His graceful hand movements are still a reference in flamenco. He embodies the real strength and warmth that many of us aspire to as leaders.