This quote from the film Chariots of Fire captures the thoughts of Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner and missionary who won a gold medal for the United Kingdom in the 1924 Olympic Games in the 400 meter race, and whose deep faith in God and great capacity to celebrate and exalt his gift of running has always stayed with me as a leader. His passion and his heart ultimately helped him overcome personal and moral dilemmas and provided a deep reservoir of strength from which he could draw, ultimately helping him become a true champion and world-wide phenomenon.
While the film itself may not have aged as well as others from its era, its depiction of Eric Liddell’s race always resonated with me because I, too, was a 400 meter runner in my middle school and early high school years, and for a brief moment in the 8th grade, I achieved the fastest time for my age group for the year in Connecticut where I grew up. I finished in 55.2 seconds, to the thrill and shock of my coach and teammates alike (but compare that to the fastest high school age time set in 1982 by Darrell Robinson, who achieved a time of 44.69 seconds!) It was a wonderful, unforgettable moment; albeit short-lived. Someone from elsewhere in the state shaved an additional two tenths off my time before the end of the season. Ah, such for the spoils of victory!
The 400 meter is both one of the most dreaded and celebrated track races for many, because it is the kind of race that is not quite a sprint, not quite a run, and if you are giving it your very all, is as painfully difficult as any to execute with any kind of strategy. For me, the hardest part of the race was balancing pace, breathing/wind, and drive. It is not just simply keeping the fast pace you might set for the first 200 meters (which is often an all-out sprint if you do not have the discipline to hold your stride), but having ample reserves for the third leg of the race, somewhere between 250 and 300 yards.
It is at that point that you have most likely given all of your physical stamina and speed away, and are left with really only one thing: Will. Will to overcome the rigor mortis that seems to set into every muscle in your body. Will to not just keep your head up and your eyes open and forward, but to propel your body forward, against wind resistance, the curve in the track, a thousand and one other variables. And perhaps most importantly, the will to not just merely hold the pace you set out for yourself in the first 200 yards, but to actually increase your pace despite every cell in your body screaming at you to simply do the exact opposite and let yourself fall on the ground in collapse. In that stretch, you lose the ability to strategize, to really think at all. You simply push yourself forward as absolutely hard as you can, and in working to overcome the challenge with reason and logic, the best runners often have only one thing to fuel that will: Heart.
For many in the field in which I am situated, the work can feel like that last stretch of a race, and yet some of the best leaders I know seem to make their accomplishments look almost effortless. However, leading from the heart requires a tremendous degree of discipline and effort.
Surprisingly, despite the plethora of leadership literature and research available to the public today, surprisingly little is written about heart-based leadership, and less still on the connection between heart-based leadership and emotional intelligence, which, thankfully, is something you can influence and build over time (unlike what is believed about cognitive intelligence). You can learn more about emotional intelligence by following the work of Daniel Goleman, the person who founded this concept.
Over the past several years in my own leadership growth, I have come to find myself drawn time and again back to those days of my youth, when I had the courage and verve, the will and the heart to become a very good middle-distance racer. So many aspects of my work require heart, and challenge me to not simply be the best that I can be, but to insist that I can be more than I have thought possible, and to hold fast to that belief even in the moments of great adversity, in confronting significant obstacles, and coping with outright failures based on decisions I have made (or have failed to make). It is often heart that provides guidance when others test your will or question your motives, even when you accomplish much and endeavor to include others in your accomplishments.
But perhaps more than simply the matter of drive and will (certainly what every non-profit executive needs to overcome or manage things like fundraising fatigue, for example), heart-based leadership provides a primer on how to lead that is rooted very much in Judao-Christian-Muslim values of old, all of which essentially say at their core: Treat others the way you wish to be treated.
While I may not be a particularly religious or spiritual person per se, and my professional work resides wholly in a secular space, I have come to find (perhaps as a consequence of age and maturity) that heart-based leadership resonates so deeply because it also serves as a guide for how I treat others when grappling with the most difficult leadership or organizational decisions I must professionally make. In that respect, heart-based leadership, perhaps above all other things, has served as a driver for my own leadership development and professional growth.
In treating others as you hope to be treated, you may come to find, as I have, that you have the ability to inspire and be inspired by others, and are more likely to attract people to work with you who feel the same and often live by the same principles.
One of the thoughtful and prolific writers in this space is Lolly Daskal, who has created and amassed a range of useful monikers for leaders aspiring to lead with the heart as well as the mind, and who also aim to build and strengthen the emotional intelligence it invariably takes to lead from the heart effectively.
Here are three among my favorite quotes of hers, these are excerpted from a collection called Thoughts Spoken from the Heart:
- “The difference between impossible and possible is a willing heart.”
- “We become what we believe.”
- “There are no limitations except those we create for ourselves.”
Heart-based leadership is not special, it is not new, and through the ages, some of the best leaders have demonstrated how a balance between the heart and mind can help leaders become their best possible selves, and in their effort to be so, benefit all those they impact with their work. However, while it may not be new, pursuing it can be very challenging, but ultimately a very rewarding experience, and as you endeavor to become more heart-based the benefits can be many both for you as a leader and for those you help to lead.
My wish for all for the New Year is that you can lead with both heart and mind in all that you endeavor to do!
I would love your thoughts on this article and on leadership in general. Please feel free to e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.