Humans are staggeringly complex systems. An incalculable number of reactions and events must occur correctly, and in proper synchronization, every moment of life for a human being to live. It is a level of complexity which for all of our science we are still unable to completely understand, and tiny variations produce all of the immense variety of unique individuals in our world. It is therefore no wonder that so much time, effort, and words have been spent in an attempt to understand how those complex individuals interact together in this chaotic organism known as society. The Heart Led Leader is another text to add to that body of literature.
While I’ve read my share of these sorts of books, and even reviewed several on the site (like The Last Lecture, or The Infinite Game), The Heart Led Leader wasn’t originally on my reading list. I had every intention of reading a new Conn Iggulden historical fiction piece after finally finishing The Divine Comedy, perhaps followed by something science fiction or fantasy, but I was invited to read this book as part of an informal book club at work, and decided to participate.
Like many of the leadership-related books that inhabit the same intellectual sphere, The Heart Led Leader’s basic premise is a concept that has existed for centuries: servant leadership. Also like many similar texts, it spends a lot of pages and words belaboring the same points and dancing around the actual topic with feel-good stories and examples, instead of directly confronting and discussing the underlying concepts and principles that these books profess to address. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a bad book – but know that this is not where you should turn if you’re looking for heavy discussions or detailed elaborations.
My problem with this book is not with the argument it is trying to make, but rather with how Spaulding goes about making the argument. The entire book is devoted to anecdotes, either personal or second-hand, and these anecdotes are the kind that are meant to tug on proverbial heart-strings (not unexpectedly) and viscerally reinforce through narrative the central argument: that leading from the heart is superior both practically and morally. Yet since I attempt to avoid logical fallacies, I found myself looking through these emotional stories, and finding that most of them left out important parts. While talking about the importance of not prioritizing achievement and the “what” in life, the stories almost exclusively featured people who had worked hard to accomplish things, and achieved positions of authority as a result. One must wonder if they had not, at some juncture, prioritized achievement and accomplishment, if they would ever have achieved a position from which they could “lead from the heart.” Yes, leadership exists at all levels and is independent of positional authority, but I could present many counter-examples where people who embodied many of the traits advocated for in this book were passed by and ignored.
The book would have been much more compelling if Spaulding, who says several times how much he likes to familiarize himself with the “rank and file” of the companies and organizations with which he interacts, had presented examples of successful heart-led leaders at levels other than CEOs and company founders. The only less high-flying examples came from his own life, and showed only specific situations, not an overall philosophy. There could have been examples of employees demonstrating servant leadership to improve their companies, instead of so many examples of top-down leadership.
I am a major proponent of servant leadership, and have read texts from multiple centuries and about figures from across the ages who exhibited those principles. The idea that the leader is ultimately the servant of the people can be defended from thoroughly practical angles. Putting it in terms of leading from the heart is just another framework, and to my mind Spaulding did not do a very rigorous job of presenting a cogent argument for his position.
If you are new to the intellectual spheres in which these kinds of books reside, then this might be a good piece with which to start. Unfortunately, if you’re already familiar with concepts of servant leadership, you probably will find little new in reading The Heart Led Leader.