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Leaning into leading with heart

How can leaders continue to put people first, even in times of high stress?

7 min read


Leaning into leading with heart

The Grossman Group

This post is sponsored by The Grossman Group

David Grossman is the founder and CEO of The Grossman Group, an award-winning communications consultancy based in Chicago. Through his work, he helps organizations unleash the power of communication to engage employees and drive performance. He recently wrote a book that outlines some of his vast experience in leadership with companies such as Amazon, McDonald’s, SC Johnson, Microsoft and more. 

SmartBrief recently had the chance to ask him some questions about that book, Heart First: Lasting Leader Lessons from a Year that Changed Everything. Here is the insight that he shared:


SmartBrief Editors: In your book Heart First, you look at the past year and a half of change and what it meant for leaders in the moment and what it will mean long term. What are the biggest components of change underway now and on the horizon?

David Grossman: The pandemic clearly cemented the need for everyone to be adaptable, resilient and willing to embrace rather than resist change.  Right now, we are witnessing, “The Great Resignation,” which signals the balance of power is clearly shifting from senior leadership to employees. Likewise, we have a more distinct divide between employee roles, such as those who continued to go to the workplace and those able to work remotely. In some cases, this has caused resentment and the perception that one group of workers has more privileges than the other. Additionally, the pandemic highlighted the importance of effective communication as a critical tool to better understand employee needs and further inspire and engage the workforce. These trends are signaling the need for leaders to act differently than in the past.


SB: How does leadership look different in times of crisis or rapid change?

DG: In challenging times, the concrete actions of leaders can be defining moments for an organization. Our current times are unprecedented and have delivered a “new reality.”  The pandemic has made employees more empowered to ask for what they want, or leave for a new position. Leaders who try to ignore that in the hope that the pain will simply pass are misguided. Strong leaders respond by listening more intently and taking action on employee needs. At all times, but especially in a time of crisis, leaders who find new ways to connect, build great teams, and help employees understand the value they bring to the organization can achieve remarkable things. So the key question for leaders today is – are we listening? Do we truly know what employees think and what they need to feel inspired again? Are we prepared to show that we’ve listened and are willing to lead in new ways that employees and the times demand?


SB: What does it mean to lead in a “Heart First” way?

DG: Leading with heart is about authenticity, empathy, vulnerability, self-disclosure, listening, and setting and re-setting expectations.  During “the year that changed everything,” we learned how powerful it can be when leaders make personal connections. Leading with heart is based on an understanding of this truism; the stories of every employee are important. And successful leaders learn what those stories are, and how to support their employees based on what they hear.

Alisa McGowan, CHRO of Tecomet, a medical device company, perhaps captured it best in the forward to my new book.  She said: “Connecting with people in an authentic way is built through understanding someone else’s journey and someone else’s story.” She went on to say, “It’s about just recognizing the simple fact that everyone has a story…. a story that helps define who they are, what they hope to accomplish, and what truly matters to them when it comes to work and life.”


SB: What are the components of authenticity in leadership? 

DG: There are three key components to what I call Respectful Authenticity. The respectful piece is important because many people use the word “authenticity” as a license to be rude or disrespectful of others, with a hint of arrogance or shock value. I’ve added the word respectful to distinguish how authenticity can be a hugely powerful tool in the workplace when it’s used in the right way. 

The first component is to know yourself.  Leading authentically is about being who you are and finding out how you can be the most effective leader by bringing your unique perspective to the role.  Next, strive to be your best self in your decision making and act in ways that are consistent with who you are.  This is your own self-awareness as you relate to others.   And third, have quiet courage as you relate to others.  When you are authentic, you speak your truth in a kind and respectful way so others can hear you.  Respectfully authentic leaders are sensitive to others’ needs and look out for the best interest of others. They’re very sensitive to not taking authenticity too far.


SB: What do you think keeps leaders from being authentic? 

DG: Unfortunately, many leaders are wholly unprepared to lead in this new way. They may think it’s not professional to share a personal perspective or approach, or think they need to follow the same leadership style of others who’ve gone before them. They may shy away from bringing their personal perspective forward because they don’t yet feel comfortable, or it may make them feel more vulnerable to criticism. While leading in a respectfully authentic way isn’t something that comes naturally to many leaders, it can be taught and practiced until it’s a “muscle” that leaders have developed. When done well, I’ve seen it result in remarkable leaps in employee engagement.   


SB: In the book, you have a chapter titled “Show Your Human Side.” Why is this important to effective leadership? Do you have some examples?

DG: In uncertain and challenging times, it’s natural for employees to feel particularly emotional and unsettled. Just forging ahead without acknowledging that in some way can backfire. Instead, leaders should understand that sincere responses can go a long way in helping employees see that their leaders actually care about them. At the core of showing your human side is having empathy and a willingness to self-disclose and share your own personal story and motivations. There are many examples of empathetic leadership in the book. A particularly good illustration comes from Matt Snow, CEO of the top public accounting firm, DHG. The initial pandemic closing of the DHG offices coincided with the death of his father from lung cancer, a point that he addressed directly on a video call with the entire company. He said, “Naturally, I was pretty vulnerable when I spoke to everyone. I said I just want to thank you all for supporting me. I’m sure you all have other things going on in your lives too – concerns with family members, how you’re going to make rent, or what you’re going to do during the day with your kids at home. Part of us being strong and resilient here is just to do our best in spite of what we have going on in our lives.” He was speaking from his own experience in hopes of helping others.


SB: Effective communication is clearly a valuable component of leadership — but what specifically can leaders leverage right now to improve employee morale, wellness and outcomes? 

DG: Leaders need to be willing to change, to think of themselves less as a boss and more as colleague, partner and facilitator who can lift others up in bold, personal ways that matter. In a more tactical sense, among the things it means is connecting employees to your mission and strategy and showing why their work matters. It’s also about building trust with consistent, transparent communication – tell them what you know, when you know it, and tell the truth. And show employees you appreciate them. Even a simple thank you goes a long way.

Leaders also need to take care of themselves, reducing their own stress levels so they can help others. As they say on the plane, “In case of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.”

To learn more, watch this video: