Review: Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership

Review: Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership

Head and Heart
Published: 2023-01-31
Page Count: 338

I’ve read my share of books on leadership over the years. And somehow, the majority of them have each made some claim to be ‘not your typical book on leadership’. As does this one.

The main premise of the book is that traditional views of leadership have been ‘head’ focussed. Traditional leadership is about power, confidence and reason. In contrast, the author puts forward that what we need today is a combination of ‘head and heart leadership’. She lists 8 ways in which she sees this being played out: curiosity, wisdom, perspective, capability, humility, self-awareness, courage and empathy. These form the central 8 chapters of the book. She provides some background on changing views of leadership to begin the book, and closes with a chapter that attempts to illustrate how these 8 attributes all come together.

Ferguson has developed a method for discerning the type of leader you are, according to her characteristics. I can only see that this is an attempt to provide a form of scientific research to back up the claims of her book. Surprisingly then, the book largely reads as a collection of anecdotes, short stories and quotes from various people she has either interviewed or read about.

Who wrote it?

Kirstin Ferguson is ‘Australia’s award-winning leadership expert’. She appears to have built quite a reputation in this space.

Why I read it

As part of my own development as a leader, I enjoy reading a good book from time to time on the subject. I forget how I came across this one, but it rated very well. And despite my cynicism for ‘new ways’ of leadership, I’m still very open to hearing new perspectives on the subject.

What I liked

It’s an easy read. A few anecdotes were interesting. Ferguson has some helpful things to say early on about the changes that have shifted modern views of leadership. But sadly, there was very little I enjoyed in reading this.

What I didn’t

I my opinion, the book is a bit of a mess, and doesn’t really achieve the goal it sets out to achieve. Here are a few key faults I found with it.

Most of the book read, to me at least, as painfully obvious advice. I kept waiting for some unique insights, or interesting perspectives, but they never came.

It’s quite possible that I am simply too young to fully appreciate what Ferguson says is a radical rethink from the ‘old’ days. What she advocates for already seems normal to me. Or perhaps my years of reading, thinking and practicing leadership through a Christian lens has made Ferguson’ argument seem less earth shattering and mostly, well, obvious. Or maybe it’s that I don’t have the personality of a ‘traditional’ leader, so I’ve never felt an urge or gravity towards such a picture. It’s probably a combination of all of the above.

One of Fergusons biggest mistakes is to grossly oversimplify. Ferguson argues that, in modern definitions of leadership, it is not necessary that someone have followers in order to be a leader. In critiquing old definitions of leadership – think your classic 1980’s brash, confident, take-no-prisoners charismatic CEO – she says that in this view, there is no room to see “leaders of ideas like Greta Thunberg who do not start with followers and hold no position of authority”. She then adds other forms of leadership to build her case that you don’t need followers: leaders of movements and those who lead ‘at the margins’ because of their ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. Ferguson wants to make a case that anyone can be a leader – and in fact is a leader – within their already existing roles and responsibilities. Now, I’m fully on board with that idea. But I think she goes a step too far to say that leaders don’t need followers. I would agree if she meant that they don’t need formal structures of leadership or official identifiers of followers. But – to pick one of her early illustrations – Greta Thunberg has become a leader not because she spoke up about Earth’s changing climate – she is a leader because people listened to her and got behind her. If no-one followed her, she would be ignored and not a leader by any definition.

Similarly, Ferguson speaks of leaders of minority movements as if they have only just begun to be able to exercise leadership in this modern view of leadership. I feel again this is a major oversimplification of the matter. I am curious what she would make of US civil rights leaders in the 1960s, for instance. They had no entitlement to leadership. No recognised position of power But they followed the same path that is taken by every group of humans. Sooner or later, we look to someone to advocate for us in some context, or someone to help a community be cohesive. What she advocates for in a ‘modern leader’ has already been seen in many leaders and movements of history.

There are two great ironies to the book that I do want to mention.

Firstly, Ferguson goes on at length in the early part of the book to argue that everyone is a leader, and we should push hard against traditional views of leadership – those of people high-up in the business or sporting world, for example. But then the rest of the book is full of stories, quotes and interviews of people who are exclusively in the realm of CEO’s, business leaders and sporting champions. She wants to advocate for the ‘ordinary’ leader, but then undermines the whole thesis by not giving a single ‘ordinary’ leader a voice throughout the book.

Secondly, the book appears to be the result of some lengthy research that Ferguson has done in the leadership space. There’s some information in the appendix that seeks to give credit to the scientific nature of her work. But nothing in the book itself is grounded in anything remotely scientific or research driven. There are only random quotes from someone-or-other saying something about their view of leadership. There’s no critique of ideas presented by these people. No assessment as to whether what they say is true, or has seen any measurable success. They are, effectively, meaningly anecdotes that lack any power to convince the reader.

Two final grievances I had with the book: because a number of people receive multiple spaces in the book to express their thoughts on leadership, as a reader you are bombarded with introductions to these characters. For example, Libby Trickett has achieved much as an amazing athlete. But I really tired reading for the umpteenth time that she is “Three-time Olympian and four-time gold medallist Libby Trickett”. Many others in the book receive similar treatment.

Religious leadership receives a few brief mentions throughout the book. All negative. Except for the Baha’i faith, which she holds up as a beautiful complement to modern leadership because in this faith, “inclusivity and consensus is deeply valued”. I was probably most sensitive to this topic than the average reader of the book, but she certainly came across to me as someone with an axe to grind.

Who should read it?

I would not recommend this book to anyone. If you’re looking for a pithy book on leadership, hate most books on leadership, consider yourself in leadership of a minority of some sort, and are a looking for a big hug and affirmation, perhaps this book is for you. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s worth it.

1.8Overall Score

Head and Heart

I've read my share of books on leadership over the years. And somehow, the majority of them have each made some claim to be 'not your typical book on leadership'. As does this one. The main ...

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