How can a warm leadership style help you?

Stay warm in the office: How compassion complements leadership


You may well have been warned, as I have been, not to get too close to your staff. “You can’t be their friend and their boss” Well, maybe not. But being liked by your staff and being perceived as someone who likes them can have a positive effect on your professional relationship and your success as a leader. You don’t have to be their friend, perhaps, but you still need to be warm and approachable.

What is warm leadership?

Interpersonal warmth affects how your staff see you, both as a person and a leader. The Harvard Business Review describes it this way:

“Prioritising warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrating that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them.”

Interpersonal warmth affects how your staff see you, both as a person and a leader.

Being a warm leader doesn’t replace or overshadow being a capable one; it complements it. Loran Nordgren, Associate Professor of Management and Organisations at the Kellogg School, uses an example from The Simpsons to illustrate how the two aspects work together. While Mr. Burns is a capable but cold leader, and Homer is warm-hearted but ineffective, the best combination of the two traits is Lisa Simpson.

“She’s accomplished and intelligent, but also other-focused and empathetic, and she conscientiously advances both sets of characteristics,” Nordgren says. It’s this combination, where your capability and your compassion complement each other, that you should aim for.

How do you express this warmth? It can be small gestures – a smile, eye contact, the way you speak to people. Or it can be in larger acts – taking a risk to protect your staff or sacrificing something to help another.

Being warm and compassionate doesn't have to come at the cost of your effectiveness as a leader.Being warm and compassionate doesn’t have to come at the cost of your effectiveness as a leader.

The wrong kind of heat

A lesson I’ve learned is that warm leadership isn’t just about what you feel towards your staff – it’s about what they think you feel towards them. If your warm gestures seem insincere (even if you meant them), they’ll do more harm than good.

Likewise, the timing of your warm gestures makes a difference. Nordgren warns that a mistimed act of warmth can undercut your authority. There will be times when your staff need a strong, decisive leader more than they need a friend.

“Certain ‘warm’ gestures—such as offering to take notes in a meeting—can sometimes convey submissiveness or passivity, which may not be ideal,” Nordgren says.

But navigating these risks is worth it, if it means you get to avoid what leadership development expert Jack Zenger describes as a ‘Wizard of Oz’ phenomenon, where leaders are segregated away from their staff and appear imposing and unapproachable.

Leadership is a complex, many-faced role that requires a balance of practical and emotional skills. To develop yours, check out the leadership training courses available at ICML.

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