The research into excellence in leadership turned the traditional notion of leaders as ‘strong and forceful people lacking in warmth’ on its head. We now know that great leaders start by gaining trust, listening and developing empathy and emotional intelligence.
In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, social psychologist and Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Amy Cuddy, Matthew Cohut and John Neffinger write that warmth and strength are the two most noticeable traits in people. Furthermore, these are also to a great extent how leaders are judged.
Cuddy et al. argue that warmth includes a) trustworthiness and b) how approachable leaders are, while strength speaks to competence. They explain that these traits are important to others as they answer two crucial questions: “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” and “Is he or she capable of acting on those intentions?”
The article quotes research by Cuddy, and colleagues Susan Fiske, of Princeton, and Peter Glick, of Lawrence University, to show that people respond to competent leaders who are lacking warmth with envy, an emotion involving both respect and resentment that cuts both ways.
Cuddy explains that leaders who choose to emphasise strength, competence, and credentials in a professional context run the risk of triggering fear and a whole series of dysfunctional behaviours in the workplace. Fear, she explains is highly undesirable as this in turn limits cognitive potential, creativity and problem solving ability. Fear, she adds, is also a major cause of employee disengagement.
While strength is important, Cuddy argues, leaders should start with working on trustworthiness and warmth. “A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas,” Cuddy writes.
The author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success, Sylvia Hewlett, agrees that exhibiting emotional intelligence and showing empathy is a crucial part of having gravitas, a widely recognised characteristic of leaders. She explains that while leaders can be decisive when the situation calls for it, they can and should know when to show empathy.
Gravitas was one of the most recognisable qualities of a leader pointed out by the respondents in her research, with communication and appearance being the other two main qualities. She agrees with Cuddy’s research saying that part of great communication as a leader is the ability to engage listeners, to find common ground and to relate.
In her book Presence: Being your Boldest Self to you Greatest Challenges, Cuddy adds that people only value a leader after they trust first. Abilities come second, Cuddy writes. She also underlines the value of being a good listener saying that this is an excellent way to gain trust.
Although leadership presence is a complex picture, one thing is clear: a leader who is strong, but lacks warmth, will fail to gets the best results from their team. Likewise, a leader who is warm may be well regarded, but if they are lacking in strength they may be perceived as incompetent.
In short, a great leader strikes a balance between warmth and strength!