Kirstin Ferguson is an author, columnist and leadership expert. In 2021, she was named one of Thinkers50’s top 30 Thinkers to Watch. In 2023, Kirstin was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for her significant service to business and gender equality. She is an Adjunct Professor at the QUT Business School and a Sir Winston Churchill Fellow.
Below, Kirstin shares 5 key insights from her new book, Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership. Listen to the audio version—read by Kirstin herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Leadership is simply a series of moments.
Every moment offers the opportunity to lead with impact. Regardless of who we are, how old we are, how we live, work, or play, every moment is an opportunity for our words and actions to have an impact on those around us.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of the thousands of moments in my life that stick with me—whether they were moments with leaders like my parents, my teachers, my bosses, or my colleagues —some of those moments have been positive and others have been damaging, perhaps even traumatic. Those moments stay with us for the way they make us feel in that moment.
We all remember those moments from leaders who saw potential in us before we might see it have ourselves. Leaders who listened, welcomed feedback, asked our opinion, or respected a different point of view. We also remember those moments when leaders have undermined us in front of others, been inconsistent, questioned our expertise, or belittled us.
It is easy to remember those moments when we think about the impact others have had on us. But are you just as conscious of the moments you offer others? The impact your words and actions might have on them. In our busy lives, many moments are fleeting and might unconsciously pass us by. We may not even realize the opportunity just missed, or the impact we left in our wake.
This means to be the most effective leaders we can be—to be modern leaders—we must recognize every moment is an opportunity to have an impact. We need to own those moments and be self-aware of the impact they are having on us, and those around us.
2. To live is to lead.
We are all leaders. This might seem obvious to some, but you would be surprised how many people don’t see themselves as leaders, even though they clearly leave a leadership impact. This is because we have been taught our whole lives that leadership is only for those with power and authority—formal leaders. Leaders with important titles, and employees they are responsible for.
The problem with such a narrow view of leadership is that it excludes, rather than includes, the many people we see leading in their lives every day. We are all leaders—in our homes, our workplaces, our communities—regardless of our formal titles or roles and responsibilities. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone is the boss. That would lead to chaos. But all of us leave a leadership impact.
“We are all leaders—in our homes, our workplaces, our communities—regardless of our formal titles or roles and responsibilities.”
In the first few months of the pandemic, I went to a local grocery store, and watched a scene unfold. On this day, the young female checkout operator in my aisle couldn’t have been older than 19 or 20 years old, about the same age as my daughters at the time. In front of me was a much older man who was visibly annoyed. He had all the tell-tale signs—loud sighs, looking at his watch, shuffling from side to side, he was impatient to leave.
Finally, when he reached the young check-out operator, he spoke up in a loud voice and told her that the policy of mandating face masks to be worn while shopping in the store was wrong, and that he would not be coming back again.
At this point, I stepped forward—as did many others who had been watching this unfold as well—ready to jump in and speak up on this young woman’s behalf. But we needn’t have been concerned. The young woman summoned far more patience and respect than I could have at that moment and calmly explained she also didn’t like wearing a mask.
She said after a long shift it grew hot and rubbed on her skin. She explained she wore the mask because it kept everyone safe, including him. She thanked the customer for helping keep her and others safe by wearing his mask as well. That young woman, without any of the formal titles we have always been taught comes with being a leader, was very much a leader at that moment.
It was a reminder that to live is to lead.
3. We can all master the art of modern leadership.
You will be pleased to know my research found being a modern leader is not a fad and you don’t need to throw out anything you may have already learned. Modern leaders draw on qualities and leadership skills we already have, often in abundance, and which we can develop even further as we become conscious of the impact we have on others.
Very often, some of the qualities or attributes are those we keep separate from work. The leader we are at home might be quite different from the leader we are in our workplace. Modern leaders integrate the leader they are in all contexts of their lives, whether at home, in their communities, or at work. It is the skills as a leader you have across all contexts of your life that, together, will help you be the most effective leader you can be.
The head and heart, of course, is a metaphor. And it is not a new one. We have all heard or said the words “My heart says yes, my head says no.” At some point, we have all experienced heartbreak, or perhaps we’ve been told we have rocks in our head. But we know from research that how we identify with our head and our heart can impact how we perform, so it is the perfect metaphor for thinking about modern leadership.
“Modern leaders integrate the leader they are in all contexts of their lives.”
There are four attributes of leading with the head; curiosity, wisdom, perspective, and capability. There are also four attributes of leading with the heart; humility, self-awareness, courage, and empathy.
The “art” of modern leadership is about understanding how to draw upon the right head and heart leadership attributes at the right time and in the right amount. Master these attributes and understand how to apply them. When you do that, you will go a long way toward being the modern leader the world needs today.
4. Modern leaders monitor their word-to-wisdom ratio.
There is a research study that found even though 95 percent of us think we are self-aware, only 10 to 15 percent of those we lead would agree. This is why building our self-awareness through feedback and other tools is so important.
In my research, having the self-awareness of being aware of your limitations was the factor that strongly correlated with all other attributes of modern leadership. So let me share a tool with you that I have used for many years called the Word-to-Wisdom ratio.
I began my board career at just 35 years old and joined my first public company board at 38. These were boardrooms where I was generally the only woman, and often the youngest by decades. I looked—and felt—very inexperienced. I felt I needed to do more to make an impact. I didn’t want to fail.
What that looked like was me thinking I needed to contribute to every discussion, trying my best to add value but often failing. I felt I was being judged and thought the only way to improve was to understand more, contribute more, and be heard.
At the same time though, I noticed my very senior colleagues hardly said anything at all. When they did say something, it was worth its weight in gold.
“Building our self-awareness through feedback and other tools is so important.”
They would allow everyone else to speak first and then come in with a perspective no one else had considered, which ultimately led to better outcomes. They might only ask a single question, but it would completely change the direction of the conversation and lead to more insights and better outcomes.
Over time, I helped build my self-awareness of my contributions through what I called the word-to-wisdom ratio. This encouraged me to think about the number of words it was taking me to add value to a decision, a crisis, or a conversation. The number of words it was taking me to add anything of value was high, whereas my colleagues at the time had very healthy word-to-wisdom ratios hardly using any words at all.
The more experienced I have become though—and frankly, the more self-aware—I now think of my word-to-wisdom ratio as an opportunity for me to build leadership in others. I want to say as little as I can to help those I lead come to solutions themselves.
5. Being able to ‘read a room’ is key for modern leaders.
When Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020, National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver faced a dilemma. Silver needed to make a significant decision in the face of very little information. Gobert had become the first pro-basketballer to have COVID and Silver needed to decide what to do. Ultimately, Silver canceled the NBA season, and the NHL and Major League Baseball soon followed.
Can you imagine what that decision must have been like to make at that time in the face of sponsors, team owners, stadium owners, players, and fans? This was all before anyone knew how the pandemic might evolve. Yet, Silver assessed the environment, tried to predict a few steps ahead and he decided on the course of action in the face of very little information. He truly “read the room.” He led with perspective.
In my research, of all eight attributes of the head and heart, perspective has a truly special quality. It’s like a turbo-boost to becoming a modern leader.
In basic terms, leading with perspective means you can “read a room.” It doesn’t need to be an actual “room”, but it is much more likely to be your organization, industry, or family. If you lead with perspective, you are also able to keep an eye on what is happening outside the room as well.
Importantly, leaders notice who is missing from the room too, which is particularly important when we consider the leadership attributes needed to drive diversity and inclusion. In my research, the strongest correlation with perspective was empathy. This is because if you are also able to lead with empathy, you are skilled at understanding which voices or lived experiences might be missing. You are then willingly and respectfully seeking them out and engaging with different points of view.
If we combine that with leading with perspective, and noticing who is missing from the room, suddenly you have leaders who are looking for missing voices. Leading with perspective also makes sure that these voices are heard. That is the hallmark of a modern leader.
To listen to the audio version read by author Kirstin Ferguson, download the Next Big Idea App today: