The Heart of Leadership

This month’s Transformational Leader pays tribute to cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, my mentor, colleague and friend. This year marks her 40th year of teaching. In that time, she has touched thousands and thousands of people through her books, speeches, classes, workshops and media appearances.

Thank you Angie for our work together. You have enriched the past 16 years with your wisdom, creative collaboration and goodness. The debt that I owe to you I am trying to pay forward through my life and work.

I am looking forward to continuing to work and learn together for at least the next 16 years and beyond.

The Four-Chambered Heart


One of the most important practices of leadership that Angeles teaches is attending to what has heart and meaning. For that to happen, she directs Transformational Leaders to pay strict attention to the Four-Chambered Heart.

    The Four-Chambered Heart is full, open, clear and strong. For vision to be 20:20 the heart must be firing on all chambers.

    Life’s most important decisions — personal matters, family, relationships, and business — are assembled in the heart first and are rationalized later.

    • Where are you currently full-hearted in your life and work?
    • Where is your heart open to new ideas, people and experiences?
    • What are you clear about with respect to your vision, values and behavior?
    • What situations require courage and perseverance, the fruit of strong-heartedness?

    "The heart sees better than the eye," goes the old proverb, and Transformational Leaders affirm this truth through daily attention to The Four-Chambered Heart.

    The Full Heart

    Full-heartedness allows us to deeply engage in our work, relationships and community. The full heart also gives rise to authenticity and commitment.

    At home and work, the full heart helps turn our dreams and aspirations to action and results. It is the chamber most associated with generative power.

    The full heart is also the place of generosity, the capacity to share with others. This is especially important to leadership and teamwork. As Franz Kafka points out, "Anything that has real and lasting value is always a gift from within."

    In her best-selling book The Four-Fold Way, Angeles identifies half-heartedness as the opposite of the full heart. "Feeling half-hearted is an announcement of wrong placement, and it is time to remove ourselves from these situations."

    Do you have your heart fully in what you are doing? Where do you feel you have made half-hearted commitments in your personal life, relationships and work? Knowing this, what positive steps can you take to recover full-heartedness?

    The Open Heart

    The Open Heart teaches us to trust self, others and circumstances as they unfold. This is fundamental to the leader's journey.

    Trust is a firm belief in reliability. When we can rely on the self, we can extend trust to others. On this foundation, we expand our capacity to trust the unfolding circumstances.

    Trust is the container for group work. Families, teams, partnerships, organizations, communities, countries and economies all perform better when trust is upheld.

    The opposite of the open heart is the closed heart. This is a condition where leaders become defensive, controlling, and resistant to change and new ideas. Closed-heartedness also signals the presence of hurt and disappointment. This is the fast lane to cynicism.

    Where are you openhearted? What has caused closed-heartedness? How do you address the situation, forgive, and reopen the heart?


    The Clear Heart

    The clear heart teaches the lessons of integrity and discernment.

    Integrity is the ability to act from our values and principles rather than our circumstances. Just think of how different business, government and our church communities might be if leaders were able consistently to lead from this principle alone!

    Discernment is the ability to judge and choose well. It is a wisdom skill and all of our institutions require leaders with discernment if they are to sustain.

    The opposite of the clear heart is the doubting heart. Angeles Arrien suggests, "States of ambivalence and indifference are precursors to confusion and doubt. The answer is to soften and reopen the heart."

    What are you clear about in your leadership — in your roles, relationships and activities? Where do you stand on important issues? What are your leadership dilemmas or areas of confusion? How will you resolve these concerns and move forward?

    The Strong Heart

    The strong heart is the home of courage, authenticity and perseverance. As Angeles points out to her clients and students, leadership is an initiation into courage.

    The strong heart supports leaders to face situations that are unfamiliar and often unpredictable.

    Only those with the courage to enter this new territory can truly be called Transformational Leaders. Angeles states that courageous leaders have "the ability to stand by one’s heart or to stand by one’s core."

    Strong-hearted leaders can take a stand based on principle, make tough decisions, and be honest in their communication. These practices make them trust-worthy.

    Weak-heartedness is a fatal leadership flaw. When leaders lack the courage to do the right thing, organizations, institutions, and markets collapse.

    Weak-hearted leaders are also risk and conflict avoidant. They are only too willing to throw others under the bus to avoid blame or consequences for bad decisions and their own weak performance. The remedy for weak-heartedness is strengthening of heart, mind and will.

    Where are you strong-hearted in your leadership, relationships, and actions? Where are you weak-hearted and unable or unwilling to make difficult choices, say what's so when it's so, and stand by your convictions? What strengthening work do you need to undertake?


    The Four-Chambered Heart is one of the keys to Transformational Leadership. Those who practice its tenets can navigate the difficult waters that leaders must travel if they are to find the way forward.

    Those that ignore the heart do so at their own peril. As far as I'm concerned, there’s sufficient evidence in the daily news of the costs of such ignorance. Frankly, I think the world deserves much more from its leaders than it is currently getting.

    Happy Anniversary, Angie! Thank you for your lasting contribution.

    Posted on June 1, 2010 .