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.
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.