Joining Head, Heart & Hands: The Power of Authentic Leadership

By Susan Skjei, Ph.D
July 1, 2014

Joining Head, Heart and Hands: The Power of Authentic Leadership

Authentic leadership is not based on a role, position or title. This powerful approach to leadership is accessible to anyone who has the courage to show up, tell the truth and take action. In her talk, Susan will explore leadership practices that foster self-awareness, compassion and confidence in challenging times and how authentic leadership can contribute directly to organizational results.


Good Afternoon and Welcome. I am very pleased to be with you today and would like to thank Naropa University and the Wanderlust Festival for sponsoring this talk.

A friend asked me what I was doing this weekend and I said I was coming to Wanderlust . . . she said, “What is that?” and I said “I’m not sure, but I think it is a kind of summer camp for grownups, except that instead of calisthenics we do yoga and instead of s’mores we eat low carb, high protein, tofu snacks.

Summer camp conjures up wonderful memories for me . . . When I was ten I went away to a camp in Southern California at a place called Canyon Oaks. At home I was the middle child, peacemaker, book reader, sandwich maker. At camp I got to hike and swim and sing songs with other campers around the fire. I discovered that I had a body, that I was passionate about nature and that I could challenge myself in new and exciting ways. I also learned how to use a compass and the importance of knowing where I was, in order to set my direction. This later became a metaphor for my life as I learned how to access my internal compass by joining my head, heart and hands.

How I recognized that there was a problem

Fast forward to 1998. Here I am in Louisville, Colorado, I’ve just been promoted to Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at a fortune 1000 company. I am responsible for training and development for 8,500 employees world-wide during a time when the company is in serious trouble. Amazingly despite falling profits, it is business as usual. Our managers are spending most of their time learning about leadership while sitting in classrooms. It is as if their bodies are fancy robots designed to carry their heads around from one place to another. And as for the heart, forget it. Profit is king and if you don’t have a heart for that, you’re in the wrong place. As for the mind, we are so busy measuring the bottom line that there is little room for insight, creativity or innovation. The more challenging our business situation, the more we tried to perfect the usual solutions.

My aha moment

I knew something was missing but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I had been a meditator for many years, and I decided to do two week meditation retreat in the Huerfano Valley in Southern Colorado. I remember going for a walk in the woods at dusk, listening to the birds, smelling the pine needles, seeing the wild irises on the side of the hill. My senses were alive, my heart was open and my mind was clear. Suddenly I knew that this experience of being fully present and joining my body, my heart and my mind was the key to my own authenticity and quite possibly the missing element in developing resilient, innovative leaders.

I decided to turn my attention to creating powerful learning environments for leaders that would bring out the best of who they were and allow them to access this experience and make it their own. I had some success doing this in my corporate job, but eventually I left in search of a more supportive environment which I found at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I created a program called Authentic Leadership that later became a semester long certificate program. Over 600 leaders have graduated from the program so far.

What is authentic leadership?

What is authentic leadership? Some people think authenticity has to do with just being yourself and “letting it all hang out” but authentic leadership goes far beyond this definition. It has to do with accessing the best of who you are in the service of others. So it is not enough just to be “real,” you need to also be connected with others in order to be effective.

According to a recent study by the Center for Creative Leadership, leaders who are trustworthy are internally and externally coherent. They know themselves, show empathy for others and take action when needed. They are able to join head, heart and hands in service to the whole. In other words, they are authentic.

Why is this important now? As Google, Apple, Unilever and other companies are discovering, leaders who are disconnected from who they are do not foster trust. In today’s fast-paced, digital environment, employees are starved for authentic engagement. Leaders who can authentically connect with employees bring meaning and relevance to their lives and this translates to the bottom line as commitment and performance.

Where do we get off track?

If authentic leadership is so important, where do we get off track? The head the heart and the hands are all important ways that we experience the world. Each of us has a preference for one of these ways of knowing. However, when we focus on one or two of them to the exclusion of the others, we limit our experience of reality. And, if we become overly identified with one, we also have difficulty communicating with other people who see the world differently. Our own preferences create a separation between ourselves and our world. We need to find a pause or gap in our usual approach in order to allow the possibility for freshness and authenticity to occur.

Head people like theories, facts and figures and want to answer the question “why?” I can be one of those people. The more I know the better it gets. Facts are like brain candy for me. However, I can also get lost in them and begin to believe my thoughts are real and wonder why other people don’t share my brilliant conclusions.

Heart people are all about emotions; their own, other people’s, even their pets. They can walk into a business meeting -- or a family gathering -- and immediately sense the overall mood. Who’s happy? Who’s falling part? They can’t be happy until they know everyone else is. As a result, they forget to listen to their own needs while taking care of everyone else’s.

Hands people mostly want to get things done--to get their bodies moving, and everybody else’s too. They are less concerned with facts and feelings. They just want to know what’s going to get done next. They can cut through a lot of red tape, but they can also make a mess if the need to “do things” gets out of control. They can sometimes ignore facts and run over other people in their hot pursuit to get something done.

Each of us tends to spend most of our time in one of those areas. You may probably also have a secondary area that you favor some of the time; and a third area where they tend to be least comfortable. For me, it’s the body, which is why being at Wanderlust has been so rewarding.

People in one group tend to have misperceptions of those in another. Head people think heart people wear their hearts on their sleeve, and hands people just aren’t the facts. Heart people see head people as cold fishes. Hands people see everyone else as just wasting time.

How can we integrate head, heart and hands?

Clearly, there is a need to bring them together. As St Francis of Assisi said:

He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

So integrating all three areas – head, heart and hand – is a necessary for artistry and innovation as a leader. This is really a metaphor for whatever we create in our lives and in our workplaces that is genuine and that is authentic. And this is especially important in leadership since good leaders need to create a share a vision, build a team, and remove obstacles to getting things done. Your body, heart and mind, and your team’s body, heart and mind, contain enormous amounts of information and wisdom that are needed in order to solve whatever problem you are facing, if you can access them.

Why is this important in today’s world?

Little did I know just how innovative this approach to learning was at the time or how it would become even more relevant in the fast-paced, inter-connected, global environment that we are living in now where organizations are flatter, good relationships are critical and authenticity is gold.

As it turns out, I was not alone in my question about how to create powerful learning environments. Many companies and nonprofits are now incorporating mindfulness and emotional intelligence into their leadership development programs although few bring together all three elements. Let’s take a look at one approach to doing this and what some of the results have been

In the Authentic Leadership program at Naropa we focus on three primary competencies. The first is authentic presence which is cultivated through a variety of contemplative practices including meditation, yoga, aikido and dance. This helps a leader access his or her own authenticity and incorporate the dissociated parts of his or her identity.

The second is authentic relationship which is cultivated through dialogue, conflict resolution and working with differences. This helps a leader integrate the heart by cultivating compassion for others.

The third competency is about authentic and effective action which has to do with leading change--a critical skill in our constantly changing world.

A recent graduate from the program, I’ll call her Nancy, was the division manager for an oncology unit in a large hospital. While she was very efficient and ran a tight ship, her employees did not seem very engaged. Errors were frequent and morale was low. During the program she realized that her lock- step orientation toward efficiency was keeping her from feeling the grief she felt when one of her patients died. She was experiencing headaches, heartburn and join pain. Once she was able to acknowledge her thoughts and feelings and physical sensations, she was able to have more empathy for herself and to support her employees more fully in their own emotional journeys. The team came together, errors went down, productivity and morale went up and they developed some innovative approaches to patient care that they were able to spread to the rest of the hospital where they worked. Similar stories can be told about leaders from education and business.

Developing authentic leaders is easier said than done because authenticity (if it is genuine) cannot be manufactured or designed. It can only come about by creating the conditions under which it can manifest

However the key to success with all of these competencies, as demonstrated by Nancy’s story, is that it is the interrelationship of these elements that creates coherence. A synchronicity or union takes place when the three come together.

Here is a practice that will help you join head heart and mind together. Let’s begin with the body and notice what is going on (do guided body scan), then tune into your heart and ask “What are your feeling”, and now the mind, What are you thinking?” etc. Look for the one who is noticing all of it. This is your compass and your source of power as an authentic leader.


Today I’ve been talking about developing the internal compass. Practices like this help us get grounded and connected so we can discover our true north. And you can do it in an instant in the middle of your work day when you feel disoriented or stressed or lacking in confidence. You don’t need to go on a 2- week retreat to get a breath of fresh air.

Imagine a world in which leaders know themselves, are compassionate to others and act from a deep sense of internal alignment. What might our world be like? Authentic Leadership has the potential to bring people together in new and innovative ways if we are willing to show up and step into this powerful space of coherence. May you all become authentic leaders in your lives and at work and bring the wisdom of the head, heart and hands into all that you do. Thank you.