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CEO Sarah Hardy reflects on challenging conventional leadership.

13 Sep 2023

In her latest blog, CEO Sarah Hardy explores 'head and heart' leadership. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about the different types of leadership, not only in philanthropy but also in other sectors and in our communities. I have met quite a few different types of leaders lately and it has made me reflect on my own style and how others, way more quietly than me, are bringing people together.

I’ve thought about leaders I have admired, especially these quiet ones, such as the school parents who always volunteer to set up the stalls early on fete days, those who always cook the barbeque at sports days, the people who prepare meals for unwell people they don’t even know, and the team members who sort the group birthday cards and cakes. They are always there, being leaders who are not looking for accolades, not really even thinking they are taking on leadership roles.

It is the book Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership by Dr Kirstin Ferguson that prompted my focus on this. Published earlier this year, and named by Thinkers50 as one of the top 10 best new management books in 2023, the book explains the eight key attributes of a head and heart leader. I have been in leadership roles for more than 25 years and this is the only leadership book I have read cover to cover, twice actually.

In my experience, philanthropy expects its leaders to command a room and be highly present but the ideas in the book have challenged my thinking on this. Despite philanthropy being in the business of the ‘heart’ I am surprised how often we place those who lead mostly with the ‘head’ as the most competent leaders. To understand these characteristics more fully, I really encourage you to read this book.

I consider myself to be more of a ‘heart’ leader, which admittedly means I dive into a conversation at the expense of observing before I comment. It brings my natural heart capabilities of empathy and courage; however, I’m now training myself to sit back and wait at times, giving myself more time to understand others’ perspectives before I speak out. I am trying to build my head leadership capabilities of perspective and wisdom with thanks to Dr Ferguson.

Dr Ferguson’s book is helping me refine this skill, whether I’m at a work meeting or a social function. I am reading the room more than I have in the past, looking and listening to others, and only speaking when I have something valuable to say – and it takes practice. This has been challenging at times, as I’m naturally an emotive person. That is why I am in the business of philanthropy.

Another book that takes pride of place on my bookshelf and has been helpful recently is Good Arguments – What the art of debating can teach us about listening better and disagreeing well by Bo Seo a former world champion debater.

This has been interesting as it emphasises the benefits of pausing in conversations to ensure the other person has the opportunity to comment and gives you the time to listen and process. I’ve been retraining to listen better and disagree well if I don’t agree. This is not my natural instinct as I like to please, so respectful disagreeing takes skill.

I really do think that sitting back - and I mean right back in that chair, sitting on your hands if you have to - and let others lead in their own way, really does teach us to be patient and observe other leaders and styles at work. It will challenge your own beliefs and attitudes about what makes a great leader. 

These people may not have the same style as you or me, but I have seen many of them achieve greatness, whether it be social change, bringing disparate groups together or resolving conflicts, beyond my preconceived and conventional thinking of what a capable leader should look like.