“Acquiring and keeping good people is a leader’s most important task.”

—John Maxwell 

Many organizations hire and promote using the wrong criteria. The results can be disastrous: egomaniacs, poor team players, or ethical corner-cutters who cause embarrassment and financial loss to the organization.

When hiring, many organizations focus on “head” characteristics, such as knowledge, expertise, intelligence, education, experience, and skills. Of course, those factors are important. Ron Sugar, former CEO and chairman of Northrop-Grumman, told us, “A lot of our work is literally rocket science, so we have 45,000 outstanding scientists and engineers.”

“Heart,” on the other hand, includes such intangibles as character, will, passion, courage, and persistence. Parker Palmer, a distinguished author and teacher, captured this sentiment well: “I’m using the word ‘heart’ as they did in ancient times. It meant that center in the human self where everything comes together—where will and intellect and values and feeling and intuition and vision all converge. It meant the source of one’s integrity. It takes courage to lead from the heart.”

As Lynn Easterling, vice president and deputy general counsel at Cisco Systems, told us, “I can teach the hard skills, but I can’t teach good character or good relational skills.”


The search for heart in people begins with ascertaining their personal character. People with character do the right thing even when it is costly or hard. Character involves trustworthiness, humility, courage, willingness to serve, and the realization that there is something bigger than the self. We cannot expect perfection, but we can probe for what people learned when they made mistakes.

We need to look for character flaws in new recruits and colleagues, including excessive ambition, controlling behaviors, hyper-competitiveness, bullying, narcissism, arrogance, and greed. Perhaps the biggest red flag is ego. Our friend Chuck Wachendorfer quips, “My ego is not my amigo.”

Emotional intelligence

Another important component of heart is emotional intelligence. Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, told us she no longer interviews to determine task skills, relying on others to screen such head matters. Instead, she probes for character, humility, empathy, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, authenticity, and fearlessness.

According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence entails “managing feelings so that they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people to work together smoothly toward their common goals.” It also includes the ability to work well with others despite differences and challenges.

Phil Soucy, co-president and CEO of Modern Technology Solutions, told us, “They may be very knowledgeable in their discipline, but if they lack emotional intelligence, it just does not work.”

Cultural fit

The next component of heart is cultural fit. Burns focuses on “fit and fitness” for the Xerox culture when interviewing executives. She explained to us. “I want them to fit with our values and culture.”

Alan Lewis, owner and chairman of Grand Circle Corporation, says, “Alignment with my company’s culture and values counts far more than do skills or experience. In most cases, if an associate shares our values, we can teach the job skills.”

Be selective

We need to be very selective about whom we hire and promote. We recommend panels of multiple interviewers to get different perspectives on candidates. Start reading resumes “upside down,” the way Google does, to find the hidden gems at the bottom under “activities and interests.”

Remember to be patient. Resist pressure to fill a vacancy rapidly—because someone weak in heart will be a painful mistake. Take the time to get it right.

Some sample questions we have uncovered for interviewing for heart can be viewed on our website at http://triplecrownleadership.com/assets/Interviewing-for-Heart.pdf.

Core concept: Recruit and promote for both head and heart. Head involves the knowledge, skills, and experience necessary. Heart involves integrity, emotional intelligence, and fit with the desired culture.

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

—Nelson Mandela

Practical Applications for Leaders

Do people in your organization have good head and heart qualities?
How have leaders in your organization shown heart?
What else could you do to assess a candidate’s heart qualities?
Do you recognize and reward people for both head and heart?
What more could you do to build both head and heart in your organization?