Startup HR: Do You Lead From Your Heart or Your Backbone?

Heart. Backbone. As leaders we tend to fall more on one side of this equation than another – we either operate primarily from our hearts or primarily from our backbone.

For heart, think of leaders you’ve worked with who always had the time to listen to you, who genuinely seemed to care about your concerns and offered supportive direction. Leaders who connected deeply and inspired loyal followers.

For backbone, think structure and direction, clear limits and expectations. No BS, not as much tolerance for questions, just a focus on sticking to what’s needed and getting it done on time. The kind of leader who never hesitated to speak up when needed, call someone out, or give criticism.

The secret to great leadership is not to decide which one is better but to find the way to have both. There is a balance between heart and backbone for our own leadership style and for each situation. An employee in crisis over a family situation needs more compassion and space, not reminders of a looming (or past) deadline. An employee with a bossy nature and pushy style needs more structure and accountability, not just a friendly chat.

Backbone is the old-school management style and there is no question that there are too many managers who operate exclusively from this domain. Demonstrating kindness, understanding, and yes – love – in our workplaces is what drives connection, loyalty, and greater effort. We must bring our hearts to work in order for us to build lasting success.

But as managers it is not our job to be popular or liked, it’s our job to create conditions for our people to grow and succeed. That includes holding them accountable to deliver as promised, pushing them to take risks when they don’t want to, and giving them opportunities to find their developing edge. All of those things require backbone.

Where do you need to bring more heart to your work? And where could you use a little more backbone?