The Head, Heart and Guts of Leadership Character

Simon Black –

Are leaders born or made? This question dominated leadership thinking until the 1940s and, despite the growth in leadership development (particularly since the 1960s and 1970s) is a question that is still frequently asked in conservation circles.

The question (or its answer perhaps) is usually framed in terms of ‘personality’ on one hand and ‘skills and abilities’ on the other. ‘Personality’ is seen as something that we are born with, or at least is shaped in early shildhood, whilst many of our ‘skills and abilities’ can be learned. We can achieve this learning to some level of effectiveness or another, perhaps by training, or reflection of experiences or (common to many conservation leaders perhaps) by a form of unconscious ‘osmosis’.

As human beings we have enormously elastic capabilities – our learning is often governed by choice, not just genes. When I discuss practical leadership – working with people to get things done, I often use a simple three-part model – Head, Heart and Guts. An imbalance in one of these three dimensions would make us appear either cold, or gushing, or irrational, or inconsistent, or unpredictable, or a steamroller, or someone who bends in every wind (or worse).

The balancing of these things becomes important as we juggle the need for scientific rationality (e.g. in monitoring data) with managing the sensitivities of local communities, or trying to engage sponsorship from businesses or government.

Steven Covey talks about balancing ‘consideration’ with ‘courage’ (Heart versus Guts). We also know that we need to balance our ‘rational’ side with ’emotional’ empathy (Head versus Heart), and also maintain balance between our Guts and Head!

If you want to develop as an effective leader, then remember to develop skills in planning and decision-making in combination with interpersonal skills and the development of sound judgement.


Black, S.A. & Copsey, J.A. (2014b). Purpose, Process, Knowledge and Dignity in Interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology. 28 (5): 1139-1141. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Jacobs, C.J. (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science. Penguin Group Portfolio, NY