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Freeing yourself from “Tin Man” leadership

If there's one essential characteristic a leader must have to thrive, it is having heart — heart for the team and for the business.

5 min read


Tin Man


I recently had a conversation with the leader of a nonprofit about how we so easily become mechanical in our work, especially when we are in positions of leadership. The man I was talking with made a quick, off-the-cuff reference to the story of the Tin Man, and then moved on, but the metaphor really stuck with me.

Do you remember the story? From the “Wizard of Oz”?

The Tin Man was built up from scrap metal by an inventor. He was very efficient and relatively dependable — well, at least when he was well-oiled. Yet, although he had a great personality and seemed happy, he was empty inside.

In one of the most iconic scenes from the 1939 film, Dorothy knocks on the Tin Man’s metal chest only to hear a resounding echo coming from within.

“The tinsmith forgot to give me a heart,” says the Tin Man.

“No heart?!” repeat Dorothy and Scarecrow in disbelief.

In my years consulting and advising companies and organizations across the world, I’ve found that there’s a “Tin Man syndrome” affecting many leaders. We get sucked into an autopilot state at work: We go in, put in our time, keep our heads down from dusk ’til dawn immersed in work, and then punch out. It’s like we have become robots. Which is quite ironic given the talk about how we are all going to be replaced one day by AI. We don’t have to wait for that day — it’s already upon us!

Yet here’s the thing about machines: no matter how efficient, how reliable, how shiny, or how smart they become, machines will never have a heart. And if there’s one essential characteristic a leader must have to thrive, it is having heart — heart for the team and for the business. 

Think about it in terms of music. Two pianists can play the same song and yet have a completely different effect on an audience. One sounds flawless but like the musical version of being in a museum or hospital — just a clinical exercise of memorized motions.

The second can play exactly the same notes, same lines, yet pour her heart into the performance in such a way that the music sounds like it’s coming straight out of heaven. That kind of magic doesn’t come from the head; it comes from the heart. And if you look at the leaders and organizations that are successfully transforming industries and charting a path in today’s competitive globalized economy, you’ll see they work with this kind of passion.

So, you might be wondering, “I don’t even remember when was the last time I felt alive at work — can I be the kind of leader who leads with his heart?”

Well, here’s the good news: You already have a heart. You don’t need to find the Wizard of Oz to get one, but perhaps you do need a defibrillator to shock it back to life. What usually happens is we just check our hearts at the door when we get to the office, and we become little more than walking, talking scrap metal wrapped in nice suits. We need to shake off the rust and loosen the squeaky joints.

Here’s how you lead from the heart:

  • Harmony. Leading from the heart begins with setting a tone of harmony in your team. Think of it as a team putting playing music together. For the music to be good, they have to be unified, focused and know and understand each other’s role. Each person has to play her part to the fullest and have the desire to contribute to something bigger than herself. You are the conductor and your job is to bring the harmony that makes the music possible.
  • Empathy. Part of having a heart means having the desire to constantly learn and understand — both people and the work itself. When you can empathize with others, you’ll be able to see what is it that drives and energizes them.
  • Adoration. In popular culture, the heart symbolizes love. We should have a sincere appreciation for our companies, jobs, teams, clients and communities. You’d be surprised the kind of positive effect thankfulness can have on your work life — even on the stormy days.
  • Renewal. Having a heart requires recognizing that you’re not really a machine, but a human being made of flesh and bones who needs rest. Too many leaders bring damage to their teams and companies because they don’t take the time to recover and burn out or lose their temper. You might not think of it this way, but taking care of yourself is also taking care of those who are around you.
  • Trust. A leader who leads from the heart is someone who can be trusted and counted on. Just as body depends on the heart for the lifeblood that keeps it alive, so does your team depend on your leadership. People know they’re being led by a good leader when they can trust him. No matter where you are in your job, career, or leadership journey, you can never go wrong by putting more heart into your work.

So, when you head to work tomorrow morning, please do me a favor: don’t check your heart at the door. It’s the one true “organ” that powers the organization. Your career life can never thrive without it.


Mark Nation is a globally recognized management expert, leadership consultant, executive coach and speaker. His focus is discovering what makes individuals and organizations amazing – those elements which drive their heart and soul. His upcoming book, “Made for Amazing: An Instrumental Journey of Authentic Leadership Transformation,” helps people to identify and sharpen their unique talents.

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