31 May 2023

2.2 Leading with your heart, head and courage

Author/Compiled by
Elysa Vaillancourt (ISW)
Reviewed by
Sophie Gonthier (ISW)
Celia Schmidt (cewas)

Executive Summary

More than ever, we need powerful and impactful leaders to help our society face the water and climate challenges of our century. Everybody agrees that leadership exists but there is no consensus on how to define leadership. When we think of leaders, we often think of impactful figures such as Barack Obama, Elon Musk and Gandhi, but leadership is much closer to us than we might think; it is all around us and presents itself in several different forms. This factsheet will help you understand the different types of leadership that exists by presenting the Head-Heart-Courage leadership model and will help you reflect on your own leadership. This factsheet will help you identify your strengths and your blind spots and propose ways to develop your Head-Hearth-Courage leadership.

Self assessment

Factsheet Block Body
  • Think of one or two people that you consider as leaders.
  • In 1 or 2 words, identify why you consider these people as leaders.
  • In your opinion, what is leadership?
Factsheet Block Body

What is leadership?


This question has aroused interests of thousands of researchers, consultants, business experts over the past years. There exist thousands of different definitions of leadership that evolve and change over time. Leadership also means different things to different people around the world and different things in different situations.

To help us define leadership, we will start by identifying what leadership is not. Leadership is not a person, it is not a quality, it is not power, it is not management.

Leadership is a relationship, it is complex, it is dynamic, it is a phenomenon. Leadership is a perception that lies in the eyes of the beholder. One same person can be perceived as a leader by one colleague but not by another.

There are as many forms of leadership as there are people who practice it and as there are contexts in which it is exerted. Leadership can be a positive and impactful phenomenon as it can be something hurtful and detrimental (some may consider a figure such as Hitler as a leader!).


The heart, head, and courage model


To help us identify the different types of leadership, we will explore the Heart, Head, and Courage model (GOSSELIN & BRUNELLE, 2016). We will focus on the three main characteristics that distinguish a leader: his intelligence (head), his ability to evoke emotion (heart) and his strength of character (courage) (GOSSELIN & BRUNELLE, 2016).

As you read through these three characteristics, you may feel like you relate more to one of them, but you most certainly have a little bit of all three in you. Draw a pie chart with three sections (Head, Heart and Courage) and try to illustrate the space that each characteristic might take in your leadership style. (INSERT IMAGE 1) [CS1] [EV2] 

As we will see together, being a good leader requires balance between these three important characteristics. By identifying which one you relate to the most, you will be able to know your blind spots and to set strategies to face these weaknesses.



You are known for your ability to analyse data and to create opportunities.  You are skilled with analytical grids, numbers, metrics, and detailed plans. You have set goals and a clear vision. You justify your decisions rationally with logical and solid arguments (GOSSELIN & BRUNELLE, 2016).  

If you are a leader which leads mostly with your Head, your team will most likely come to you when faced with difficult and complex situations which may require new and innovative solutions.

That said, your ability to analyse a context, reformulate issues and propose innovative solutions will not be enough to allow you to become an effective and impactful leader in the water and climate sector. You will also need the courage to take risks as the challenges ahead are complicated and can be overwhelming and you will need heart to understand the impact of your decisions on your team or the communities with whom you will be working. You will need to also take the time to explain your decision to your other team members and be careful not to be carried away by arrogance.


You know how to engage your team around a common goal. You are authentic and you lead by example. You treat people with respect and dignity, and you listen and value the ideas and opinions of others. You are inspiring and spontaneous, and you regularly highlight the hard work and contribution of your team members. You know how to bring your team to surpass their fears and hesitations (GOSSELIN & BRUNELLE, 2016).

The effectiveness and impact of leaders who lead with their heart has been well demonstrated specially to lead change within an organisation or within society (ISSAH, 2018; RHEE & SIGLER, 2014). These leaders are impactful leaders. They can foster transformative impact. This type of leadership can be found in different types of organisations in the water and climate sector including the public, private and non-governmental sector. That said, a leader that leads with his heart, will also need to have a clear plan and strategy to reach its vision and to be assertive in his decisions to inspire confidence in his team. This is where we differentiate our best friend from someone we consider as a leader. He will also need courage to face the obstacles and difficulties that will arise. This is particularly true in the water and climate sector as the road ahead will certainly be a bumpy road that will require courageous leaders.


You can make difficult decisions that will not be appreciated in the short term but are necessary to achieve our long-term goals. You defend are not scared to defend your convictions and points of view. You do not hesitate to take risks, to experiment, to face your fears and to act. You challenge the status quo. You are committed, persevering, demanding and you know how to get back up after a darker period (GOSSELIN & BRUNELLE, 2016).

According to Gosselin & Brunelle (2016), we lack leaders that lead with courage in today’s society. This is partially due to the fact that we are blinded by achieving our short-term goals and largely value the opinion of others.

The importance of reaching a proper balance

As we mentioned above, an impactful leader will reach a certain balance between these three characteristics. To help you become a more impactful leader, look at the pie chart which you have drawn and try to identify 2-3 strategies that could help you improve on your weakness.

For example, if you need to work on the “Heart” aspect of your leadership, you may want to try listening more to your colleagues’ opinions or taking the time to congratulate your colleague on an important achievement during your next team meeting. If you wish to work on the “Head” aspect of your leadership, you may want to try taking courses to work on your strategic development skills or use tools to help be more structured and organised. Finally, if you wish to work on the “Courage” aspect of your leadership, a good first step would be to know how to recognize situations that may need you to prioritize long term objectives over your short-term goals. 

Your strengths and weaknesses will evolve over time and might change from one situation to another. As you go reflect on different situations in which you have shown leadership, you might realize that in some situations you have led more with heart and other more with your head or with courage. Being flexible and adapting your leadership styles to different contexts is also a sign of good leadership.

How to recognize and deal with destructive leadership

We often associate leadership as something positive, something that we want to develop or a phenomenon that we want to be associated to. That said, not all leaders exert a positive leadership.  It is important to know that destructive leadership does exist, to know how to recognize it whether it be in our actions or the actions of others and to know what to do in such cases. It can take different forms such as tyrannical leadership based on favouritism and the desire for personal gain, narcissistic leadership characterized by arrogance and the search for power, Machiavellian leadership characterized by manipulation and interpersonal control, toxic leadership characterized by the abuse of power or the need of excessive control.  Destructive leadership can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and poor performance. According to May & al., “by carefully crafting their response to a destructive leadership encounter, (followers) may have a chance to positively influence their leaders’ behaviour in the future (p.210, MAY & al., 2014).” For example, if you opt to gently confront your leader regarding a specific problem and your leader perceives your strategy as constructive, you could manage to influence his/her behaviour positively (MAY & AL., 2014). The organisations also have an important role to play by promoting respective leadership guidelines and by providing “a work environment that helps to prevent and buffer stress and frustration”.  

Different types of leaders throughout history

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Sandra Day O’Connor: a courageous leader


In 1981, Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States of America, nominated Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. From During her 24 years in the Supreme Court, O’Connor served as the swing vote meaning that when the members of the supreme court were split half-half (between liberal members and conservative members), O’Connor’s vote was the one who would ultimately influence the outcome of the vote. Even though she did not have the highest title within the court, her vote determined the outcome of important and controversial cases on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, election law, sexual harassment, and the death penalty. O’Connor is a great example of a leader who led with courage. She always stood for justice and was not afraid of criticism. She had to make difficult decisions that were not always well received by her peers but that ultimately helped shape the American society of today. On August 12th 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

As you embark on your journey in the water and climate sector, you will most certainly need to make difficult decisions and show courage to help society face these existential challenges we are facing. O’Connor is a great example of what a courageous leader can accomplish and the long-term impact of difficult and controversial decisions.


Steve Jobs: leading with your head


In 1976, Steve Jobs co-founded Apple (XUE, 2016). Over the years, Steve Jobs invented hundreds of innovative products such as the iPod, iPhone and MacBook and lead the development of a company which today has become a trillion-dollar company implemented in hundreds of countries around the world. Steve Jobs is known to have a very high cognitive ability, able to solve most of the problems which Apple faced (XUE, 2016). He had a clear vision and knew exactly the steps which he needed to take to achieve his goals. Steves Jobs led with his head. That said, many will say that Jobs lack the heart characteristic of the model which we presented in this module. Jobs rarely took time to consult his colleagues and is known for being rude and obnoxious preferring to go fast than to take the time to explain his thought process to his team and giving little attention to the well-being of his colleagues.

As a young professional in the water and climate sector, you will be called upon to lead your team, your colleagues, your friends or your organisation with a clear vision and action plan. Steve Job’s example teaches us that even though solely leading with you head will allow you to achieve great things, if you wish to truly have a positive impact on your team and the people surrounding you, you will also need a little bit of heart.


Nelson Mandela: an inspiring leader


Born and raised in South Africa, Nelson Mandela helped to dismantle the apartheid regime for many years and became the first black President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 after serving 27 years in prison. Mandela is recognized as one of the most impactful leaders of the past century. Throughout his journey, Mandela always led by example following Gandhi’s words “Be the change that you seek.” He learnd to empathize with all South Africans as he aspired to be the leaders of a united South Africa. To increase engagement and increase his impact, he took the time to learn his enemy’s language. In prison, he learned the Afrikaans language and the Afrikaner history. As Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in language he understands, that goes to this head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” (PIETERSEN, 2015)

Mandela is a great example of what you can achieve if you lead with your heart above all. Even though Mandela was far from being a perfect leader, he taught us the importance of building trust by empathizing with others and have deep self-knowledge and humility. Even though Mandela led mostly with his heart, he also had a clear strategic vision and build powerful processes. He also had the courage to face his enemies and go against the mainstream thoughts. This importance of being well-balanced in the three main leadership characteristics can guide you as you embark in your leadership journey!

Your turn now!

Factsheet Block Body

Draw your own Leadership Pie Chart to discover what type of leader you are! 


heart, gut, head

Go to next topic!

Conflict management

2.3 Conflict management skills

Library References

Coping with destructive leadership: putting forward an integrated theoretical framework for the interaction process between leaders and followers

MAY & AL. (2014): Coping with destructive leadership: putting forward an integrated theoretical framework for the interaction process between leaders and followers. In: Seitschrift für Psychologie: Volume 222 Issue 4, 203-213.

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