The Importance of a Leader’s Heart

Several years ago, I was in New York City on business. I was having a relaxing dinner with one of my colleagues. Suddenly, as we were finishing our meal, I started to have chest pains. Initially, I tried to ignore them. But then I began to quietly panic. I felt that the room was closing in on me.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/angelhell, Image #3834834

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/angelhell

Embarrassed, I blurted out, “I think I may be having a heart attack.”

David immediately took control. He paid our bill, hailed a cab, and got me to St. Vincent’s Hospital, which happened to be the one closest to our restaurant.

After some preliminary tests, the doctor said, “All of your vitals look fine. But, just to be safe, we’d like to keep you overnight.” They then strapped me to a biometric bed and let me rest. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much.

The next morning, the doctor came in and said, “I’m not sure what happened last night, but your heart is fine. I suggest that you go to your primary care physician when you get back to Nashville and follow-up on this.”

My regular doctor didn’t find any problems either. Nevertheless, I ended up in the hospital twice more over the next year, thinking each time that I was having a heart attack. No one could find anything. I even saw a counselor, wondering if perhaps I was experiencing stressed-induced panic attacks.

Finally, in desperation—and thinking I might be going crazy—I made an appointment with a renowned cardiologist here in Nashville. He had saved the life of one of our authors, who couldn’t stop raving about him.

The cardiologist ran me through a battery of tests and then called me back into his office. “Mike, your heart is fine. In fact, it is in great shape. Your problem is two-fold: acid reflux, probably as a result of a small hiatal hernia, and stress.”

He continued, “about 30% of my patients who think they are having heart problems have an acid reflux problem. The symptoms are very similar. Fortunately, it is easy to treat.”

He then warned, “Stress is also something you need to address, primarily through rest and exercise. If you don’t make this a priority, you could be back in here with a real heart problem.”

The heart is incredibly important. When I thought mine wasn’t working properly, it had an enormous impact on my life, my routine, and my sense of well-being. I worried about it constantly. I couldn’t sleep. I literally was afraid I might die.

But it’s not just our physical heart that is important. Especially as leaders, our spiritual heart is equally important. It is just as important to the life of our organizations as our physical heart is to the life of our body. When it doesn’t function well, it, too, has an impact.

Proverbs 4:23 says,

Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

As leaders, we often believe it is our experience, our knowledge, or our skills that are the most important component of our leadership. Not so. In admonishing his son, Solomon says that the heart above all is the most important. It should be our first priority. Why? Because it is “the wellspring of life.” Everything else flows out of it.

But what is the heart to which Solomon refers? The Bible uses the word almost one thousand times. For example, just in the Gospel of Matthew we find these words:

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (5:8).

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:23).

A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (12:35).

But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man” (15:18).

Jesus said to him, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (22:37).

Based on these and numerous other verses, we can see that the heart is your authentic self—the core of your being. It is that part of you that makes you, you. It is your inner being where your dreams, your desires, and your passions live. It is that part of you that connects with God and other people.

It is also the most important leadership tool you have.

Physically, your heart is what keeps your body alive. It pumps blood through almost 100,000 miles of arteries, veins, and capillaries. It brings life-giving nutrients to every cell and fiber of your being. Your body can survive without many important organs. Many of these are important but not essential. However, it cannot survive without a heart. When it stops functioning, you die.

Spiritually, your heart is what keeps your organization alive. As a leader, you pump possibility into every person and every project. Possibility is what keeps the organization alive. Your organization can survive without your experience, your knowledge, or your skills. They, too, are important but not essential. However, your organization cannot survive without your heart. When it stops functioning, your organization begins to die.

The most important thing you can do as a leader is to keep your heart open. What do I mean? Think of it this way. When your heart is closed:

  • You are distant and aloof.
  • You don’t connect to people.
  • Communication shuts down.
  • You leave people to fend for themselves.
  • You focus on what people are doing wrong.
  • You are critical and demanding.
  • People feel oppressed.

The result? Possibility dries up and the organization begins to die.

Conversely, when your heart is open:

  • You are fully present and accessible.
  • You connect to people.
  • Communication is wide open.
  • You are a resource to your people.
  • You may focus on what is missing, but not on who is wrong.
  • You are affirming and encouraging.
  • People feel free.

The result? Possibility flows through the organization and the organization grows and develops.

The bottom line is this: it matters if your heart is open or closed. It will have a tangible impact on your organization. The good news is that you can open your heart. This is the leader’s most important work. It is foundational to building a healthy organization.

The key is two-fold: awareness and discipline. With regard to the first, you must learn to discern the condition of your own heart. Is it open? Is it closed? Is it somewhere in between? I find that I have to check-in with myself several times a day. I call this a “heart check.”

I ask, Where is my focus—right now? Is it in the past, where I am grieving over some loss or regretting the way I handled some situation? Or is it in the future, where I am worried about something that hasn’t happened yet. Either way, I am not present to what is happening now.

If I sense that my heart is closed, I have a choice. I can either leave it that way or open it up. This is where discipline comes into play. I literally make a decision to open my heart up, and I mentally visualize doing so. I force myself to think about what is possible. I choose to see this situation—these people—from the lens of possibility. As a result, I am fully present, available to the potential that exists in any given situation or relationship.

Maintaining an open heart—pumping possibility through your organization—is the most important thing you can do as a leader. There are other tasks, of course, but this is foundational.

Note: In order to nurture—or recover—your heart, read my post, The Four Disciplines of the Heart.

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  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    Wow, what an inspiring post, Mike! I’ve always sensed you are genuinely interested in people. It’s not fake.

    Superman Allen Arnold is that way too. You’ve chosen fabulous leaders in your organization. I’ve always said things changed dramatically when you took over. It’s clear why.

  • http://www.larissalmarks.com Larissa

    I’m a minister and pastor for college students, and need to be reminded of these insights. Even in a relationship-based role, I can tend to forget how vital it is to lead with this focus in mind. Thanks for the great post!

  • http://www.whatcausespanicattacks.com mia

    Panic attacks happens to me once in a while and it’s pretty scary everytime it happens. You just loose control of yourself. I’ve tried http://www.whatcausespanicattacks.com for help.I can see an improvement in my condition already.

  • Thomas Lane

    Excellent post, Mike. Thanks.

  • http://mywakeupcalls.net Robin Palmer

    You are a genuine and “open-hearted” blessing to Thomas Nelson, Inc. Thank you and God bless you!

  • John Y

    Wow Mike I’ve seen so many leaders like the ones you’ve described who slip into the traps you describe. Understanding most people are the way they are and may never see it you give good coaching again that we need to be listening to our heart/actions in case the leader never gets around to leading.
    David Dunham is a good man and brought some good titles to TNP. Where is he now?

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    John,

    David has started his own business. He is representing some authors and doing some consulting. In fact, he is consulting with us. He and I also serve on another board together.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • Shamilla Yeary

    Michael, whenever I read your blog I am filled with admiration and today is no different. What you say about leadership in an organization is right on, I have experienced both leadership styles and a leader with an open heart is the kind I pray I can one day become. I praise God that there are still men like you in the business world. God Bless. Your organization should feel blessed to have you at the helm.

  • http://danieldarling.com Daniel Darling

    Mike,

    About 6 years ago I had the same issue. I was having chest pains and numbness up my arm. I thought, “Gosh, I’m only in my twenties.” I went to the doctor–same thing, Mike. Acid Reflux. He gave me Nexium for about 6 mos and I haven’t had an issue since.

    Great article.

    Dan

  • greg D. Brown

    Don’t even remember how I started to read your blog but I always find some great insight to life, business, spirituality. Because you always lead with your heart your articles are so much more powerful. Thanks for sharing. You are making a difference.

  • heidi

    This post makes me very thankful for many things. Your leadership is one of them.

  • http://solshine7.blogspot.com SolShine7

    Excellent post! The way you put it made me really think deeply. Thanks.

  • http://greatleadershipbydan.blogspot.com/ Dan McCarthy

    Mike -

    Very inspirational post on heart-centered leadership. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  • Amy

    Did the above David Dunham you mentioned start the Dunham Group in Tennessee? I am trying to find out if this is a legitimate agency, but there does not seem to be much information available yet. I would really appreciate if you could let me know if you know and trust this man. Thanks and God bless you!

  • http://flowerdust.net anne jackson

    hey, we both are on protonix. i am so happy they finally came out with a generic…my insurance didn’t cover the name brand! :)

    great post!

  • http://www.flurrycreations.com John

    Michael, You have a great heart. I can tell by the way you communicate about those around you. Gail, your girls, your staff, your writers and so many others thrive because you are practicing what you preach. To have Christ is to have a transformed heart. No longer is it wicked. It is good. So good. Keep living from that truth. Excellent message.
    @johnflurry

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com Rachel Hauck

    Great post, Mike, and a picture of Jesus was when He walked the earth. Open heart, humble, servant leadership.

    I worked for a women who was the closed-heart kind and it made things difficult. We worked for her because we wanted paychecks. But none of us were inspired.

    Rachel

  • chip

    When I started following you on twitter I subscribed to your blog and what a blessing it has been. You gift for taking life’s complex issues and breaking it down into everyday speak is amazing.

    Thank you for all that you do.

  • Fran Toolan

    Mike, I focused on your use of the word ‘discipline’ in your post. Following your Twitter feeds and blogs, I am truely in awe of your discipline. How you churn this stuff out, and still manage to have balance in your life is very inspiring to me. Thank you.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael S. Hyatt

    @Fran: Thanks for your kind words. I am humbled.

  • http://www.xanga.com/viadolorosa Ee Yuing

    Thanks for sharing your insights about keeping an open heart in leadership. May the Lord continue to bless you with a healthy, open heart to lead your staff! :-)

  • http://www.naiwe.com Janice Campbell

    Beautifully stated, Mike. Keeping an open heart is one of my more challenging goals, because I have a very human fear of being hurt. It's essential, though, and I thank you for the reminder.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michelecushatt Michele Cushatt

    "…Either way, I am not present to what is happening right now."

    Tremendous insight in that paragraph. The desire to have an open heart doesn't make it so. Astute self-awareness without self-preoccupation is key.

    Here's to being fully available to the potential that exists. Great post.

  • http://www.chattykelly.blogspot.com Kelly Combs

    Thanks for your heart for aspiring authors. Through your blog & Twitter, you definitely have open communication, are providing resources and are encouraging!

    Bless your heart – both literally & figuratively!

  • Nico Bacay

    Great post!!! I really love reading article like this in the morning. It uplifts my soul. Bless you.

  • Cheryl Harman

    This is sooooo true!

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  • Haydeeang

    This reminds me of how critical & bitter I used to be. I find it difficult to submit myself to (church)leaders who can’t really “lead” people cos he couldn’t even handle us. Can’t lead in prayers cos he doesn’t speak well, can’t lead us to praise & worship cos he’s out of tune, & my knowledge in the bible is even better than his’, etc..
    But I’ve learned to humble myself already. :) I received a new heart.

  • http://twitter.com/dianesings @dianesings

    Excellent post, thank you for sharing. Your description of closed hearted leadership precisely (down to the language you use) describes an environment in my past that left me feeling deflated and incompetent. I am fortunate and blessed on this day to be in a very different place. God is good!

  • http://rosacola.blogspot.com Rocco

    This is very encouraging Michael. Thanks for sharing!!

  • http://www.leadingisreading.blogspot.com jamesJames

    Awesome post
    My recent post Goals and Change

  • laurie love

    i think the most important part of that whole wonderful piece was the statement that we have a 'choice' about our heart state. i've heard so many key leaders dismiss their lack of a good heart as 'it's just the way god made me' or that 'it's just not their strength' that it makes me scream! (in my mind) thank you so much for making that satement that our 'heart' is *our* choice.

    closely favored to the heart choise is the *awareness* point. also something i've seen key leaders dodge time and again. the funny thing is that most people who claim no awareness do a whole lot of defensive footwork when the *heart* problem they aren't *aware* of is brought to light.

    thank you again, i hope people are listening…..this will be referenced repeatedly!

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/sasbxl Beverly Brown

    What a terrific post. I'm going to retweet it and save it for my son to read when he's old enough to appreciate it.

  • Jennifer@GDWJ

    I’m headed into a meeting in a couple hours, and the heart of the matter will mean everything. Your post is perfectly timed. My *heart*felt thanks …

    Luke 24:32

    – Jennifer Dukes Lee
    @ Getting Down With Jesus

  • http://twitter.com/kristinaAholmes Kristina Holmes

    I love your blog. This is such a terrific post… much appreciated.

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  • http://twitter.com/jmhardy98 Jim Hardy

    Good post. It has real value and meaning.

    Jim

  • Rlpierrot

    Great advice!

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  • Alvin Pugh

    Thank you.  I have been asked to address leadership at a men’s day at our church, probably because I am a retired Navy Chief (submarines).  I believe that leadership is not synonymous with management, and I was struggling a bit early planning my address with separating them for my listeners.  However, the following statement puts it in a nutshell I can work with:

    “Your organization can survive without your experience, your knowledge, or your skills.  They, too, are important but not essential.  However, your organization cannot survive without your heart.  When it stops functioning, your organization begins to die.”

    Thank you for saving me much time, and helping me simplify the application of leadership for our men.  I was asked to address leadership in several places, but I believe – no, I know – that leadership is leadership in whatever environment it lands…  as long as it is based in principle.

    Thank  you, again.   Rest assured I will credit you, because you deserve it, and that I will soon be yet another of what must be a vast sea of Twitter followers.

    Alvin Pugh

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  • http://www.jimweible.com James Weible

    Great words and wonderful connection to our physical heart!

    I recently posted a similar article on my blog: 10 Ways to Develop a Caring Heart. It is my attempt to help leaders open their hearts and become more caring. It is at:
    http://www.jimweible.com/2011/12/ten-ways-to-develop-a-caring-heart/ 

    Thanks for your inspiring blog!

  • http://paulcoughlin.com Paul Coughlin

    Michael, there’s a branch of science called formal axiology (which forms the basis of talent profiling and coaching in business) which provides hard evidence and totally backs up everything you have said.

    It’s not just a theoretical premise, or common sense. Turns out that this truth you have stated is woven into the fabric of reality – people (empathy, compassion) are more valuable than ‘things’ (stuff, experience, results) – and things are more valuable than ‘ideas’ (knowledge, concepts, understanding) of things.

    I think this is something we have had to learn through experience though. New leaders and entrepreneurs are having to re-invent themselves as people who put ‘people and planet first’ and not profit. Interestingly for me – when we do this, we actually experience more success, not less..

    Thanks for a thought provoking and ‘spot on’ post.

    ~ best wishes for the New Year.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for sharing this, Paul. I had no idea.

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  • G Samuel Verret

    Thank you for such an insightful reminder of our need to monitor the condition of our heart.  It is easy in our fast-paced society filled with pressure to produce results to lose sight of such an important issue.  I needed this today.  It was right on time.  I am determined to have a heart check tonight.  I loved your points about an open heart versus a closed heart.  Very good.  Thanks again!

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  • Mark Ryan

    I know that this is an old post but I just came across your blog within the last few weeks. I love the content in this post. Thanks for being real.

  • Deborah Bolton

    Your post is truly inspiring. And, I believe your heart must start with faith in Christ. Am I right? I came here looking for information, because I believe it is time to go to the next stage of the ministry God has given me. Somehow, I need to cement these blogs together with a look that is me yet professional. Money is not why I started. It began with my heart, a heart that has been battered as a ministry wife(not my hubby, he is the best), and the chronic illnesses that left me floundering, when my main calling has always been to be a Proverbs 31 wife. Here is my Public Facebook Page, not the only one, but this is the one that gets the most attention now: https://www.facebook.com/ChronicFatigueandCreativeDecluttering1

    It has grown from 98 to 786 in two months. Amazing and Very Tiring. I am praying for a moderator with a wise, compassionate, Proverb 31: 10 -31 heart that understands what it is like to be chronically fatigued from illness. Two of my blogs are listed. in the “About.” There are only 3 more. LOL.

    • Deborah Bolton

      I meant there are only 3 more blogs, 5 in all. I need a handmaiden (housekeeper), so I can have time to write my book.