Framework no. 10: Heart, brain, and gut

What do you need in order to be a good Führungskraft (a person with leadership power; executive; leader)?

The framework no. 1 describes the responsibility of leadership, namely directing, managing, and leading. Framework no. 8 explains the function that leadership serves within an organization, namely creating clarity of intent, alignment of commitment, and autonomy of units.

The framework no. 10 looks at the personal forces that enable leadership. In fact, those forces are at work whenever you see exceptional, admirable performance of human beings.


The framework is a personal mesh-up of different sources. There are countless lists about the traits of good leaders. One that I like is in the books of John Adair, for example in ’Effective leadership’ or ’Confucius on leadership‘. At the SXSW, I listened to Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic from Hogan who talked about the drivers for employability: be smart, have drive, and be likable. You can read more about it here. This is similar to the categories we use at XING in candidate interviews. We have been influenced by the work from Friedemann Stracke that is laid out in his book ’Menschen verstehen — Potenziale erkennen‘ (unfortunately only German). He also talks about heart, brain, and gut. In general, I am interested in studies of consciousness, the human brain and its relation the the body. While thinking about heart, brain, and gut and their link to leadership traits, I found an article from Anil K. Raivanshi called ’The three minds of the body — Brain, heart, and gut’. He explaines that we have in fact three minds with 100 billion (brain), 100 million (gut) and 40 thousand (heart) neurons. The article encouraged me to use these three categories to describe the capacity for leadership.


Personal mastery

What it is all about

The capacity to lead is fueled by three forces, represented by heart, brain, and gut. Theses forces are compassion, creativity, and courage.

Let’s look at each of them:


Clearly, the heart stands for compassion. It is about connecting with other people as well as with oneself. It is driven by openenss and acceptance, showing empathy and warmth towards human beings. It is only by our heart that we know what we deeply care about. This passion gives us energy and answers WHY we do what we do. Very often, this WHY cannot be explained any further. In other words it is larger than ourselves. Lastly, well rounded compassion avoids turning our passion into an idol. It knows that there other things in life. That other people have other passions. That everything is finite, relative. This knowing or wisdom shows up in an inner smile and humor. When people look for leadership, they want to connect to people and ideas that provide meaning and safety.


The second category is about cognitive capacity. That is represented by the brain. It is about thinking, both consciuosly as well as unconsciously. It includes learned skills and experience. The more creative you are, the larger is your capacity to come up with solutions. Thinking is a search for inference. We simultaneously look at goals, possibilities, and evidence. In order to do this well, you need an associative power for more ideas, the ability to recognize patterns from those ideas, as well as the clarity to see and express what really matters. When people look for leadership, they are looking for people who help them find the way.


Our gut feeling provides us with an inner compass. It is the basis for integrity. When we are listening to our inner voice we know what to do. It takes courage to face our truth of how things really are: Outside, but also especially inside ourselves. Being courageous means recognizing and reacting to tensions we sense. It also means being tough and do what needs to get done. When people look for leadship, they are looking for people who stay true to the situation and themselves.

Everybody has the power of these three forces to a different degree, in a different form, and in a different mix. That is ok. We should be aware of our strength and individuality. Self reflection is important in order to grow as a professional — whatever our profession is. Mastering means becoming a better leader of others and ourselves.

Why I find it valuable

Any list of leadership traits seemed somewhat arbitrary to me. Why those and not others? And there was a more practical annoyance: I couldn’t remember those lists. So I was looking for a more foundational, general basis for traits of leadership.

This framework serves this requirement — at least for me. It is based in physiology, i.e. something very old and fundamental. Heart, brain, and gut show up in our language, so they do have a deeper meaning to us.

They resonate with my expection and experience of leadership. And they not only include traits for leading others, but are necessary to lead oneself. Leading oneself is the most important prerequisite for leading others.

Relevance for product management

Being successful as a product manager means being effective as a lateral leader. Compassion, creativity, and courage are the ingredients to be more effective with stakeholders and your team. This means in particular:

Compassion: people should sense that you are enthusiastic about your product; that you believe in your product vision. That it is worth to put energy and heartblood into this endeavor.

Creativity: you have to understand the real problem you are solving for your users. People expect insights from you. It is about having ideas, structuring them, and coming up with ways to test hypothesis. You don’t have to have all the ideas and insights by your own. To the contrary, managing the creative process of involving everybody effectively in sense making and identifying good solutions is part of the creativity people want from you. Yet for full acceptance, people should attribute intellectual thought leadership to you.

Courage: you have to make trade-offs all the time. Different perspectives naturally lead to conflict. You have to have the courage to make decisions. And learn.

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Caution: don’t fall in love with a framework. They support, not replace thinking. Frameworks always have a point of view on reality. There are other views as well. Stop using a framework if it doesn’t help to create insights.

Originally published at on October 21, 2015.

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