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Heart in a box: how to deal with the intrinsic tension of leadership

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Art by Robert Gober

This is the story of Jacob, Executive Director at an international not for profit research organization. Five years ago, Jacob and I had a coaching session, right before he had to fly out to a difficult conversation with one of their most senior employees. Jacob was struggling: “Who am I, going out to this guy who has 20 years more experience than me, telling him he is not doing a good job. This does not seem right. Who am I? There is a tension, almost a deceit here: you are a nice guy, you are a nasty guy.”

I invited him to look for his leadership metaphor together. So he would have something to hold on to, throughout the difficult conversation.

The leadership metaphor is a means of finding your true added value. It gives perspective to navigate chaos with grace. I have used this figure of speech in my coaching sessions since 2007, in order to give leaders something to hold on to. Who do they want to be in the face of change or in taking tough decisions?

I called Jacob 5 years later, to check whether he still remembered his metaphor, or even more important: whether he was still using it. You can read our conversation below.

Jacob, do you remember how we got to your metaphor?

The metaphor itself was born in that session; it was born in the moment. If you remember the circumstances: the following day I went to Sweden to talk to one of our employees. I prepared incredibly well. I got all the data on his performance issues. I was concerned about how to deliver the message to somebody who had been a colleague for a long time, a senior colleague, with a lot of life experience. I was at that crunch point: goodness me, this is a tough thing. You asked me: “Where does this fit in your life, Jacob, what is at stake here? What matters here?”

I do not remember the process but within an hour we came up with my metaphor “heart-in-a-box”. It was co-creation. I wouldn’t have found it without the process. You took me away from the details.

What are the main characteristics of your metaphor, heart-in-a-box?

I suppose there are 2 elements and a reconciliation of them:

  1. Heart: “leading with heart”, that is the context in which I see heart here, it is more than just emotions, it is this heart-based approach to relationship. Compassion is probably the closest word, but can sometimes be perceived as too soft or patronizing. Obviously, empathy is an element of it as well. Or solidarity, fellow-human feeling. That is the first concept.

  2. Box: by definition a box is angular, it has clear beginnings and ends, it can be open or closed, glass or wood, it is a set of rules and limits, boundaries…

And then there is the duality. A heart is not meant to be in a box, it is meant to be in a body. There you get to this tension. It constantly invites you to really live it: if the box suffocates the heart: that is not what you want. And if the box does not constrain the heart: you don’t want that either. You don’t want the heart to go out there and do what hearts do, especially not in a professional context.

Once we came up with a metaphor with that intrinsic tension attached, I understood: “I am neither good nor bad. I am doing a role. The role involves tough stuff and some developmental stuff.

Can you tell me more about that intrinsic tension?

One of the great challenges of leadership is holding things in tension and moving them on. If you are grappling with any sort of complicated challenge, there will be tension at the heart of it. As a leader you need to comprehend the tension and move it along, despite the contradictions within it.

As an example: my metaphor, heart-in-a-box, captures this tension: on one hand, it is a commitment to compassionate relationships with people, getting the most out of them, with all the positive HR intentions. And then there is the box: the tough HR truth of laying people off or having tough performance reviews. It is necessary to hold that in a tension. It is taking us to where we need to get to.”

How is the metaphor helping?

A metaphor is useful here. On one hand, it is a concise statement of what you are saying, but on the other hand it is a metaphor, it is not precise. It leaves enough room for the imagination to try to understand: “Who am I in this story?”.

During these challenging times, leaders are struggling. And at the same time they need to be giving people hope, keep the staff engaged and motivated. Get beyond the fear. At the heart of the tension in the business at this moment is the desire that this will soon be fine. Back to normal. With the reality that we are not going back to where we were. Handling that tension if you are a leader: that is where it happens. On that edge. The metaphor gives a clear image to that edge.

The way you described it, it almost sounds as if that session was also the moment when the leader was born.

Birth of a leader? It rings true. In many ways, it was a watershed moment in that regard. It was an incredible preparation. It made the meeting work. But you are right, by that time I had become more of a leader.

Do you have a physical representation of your metaphor?

I have two! One was given to me by my wife. A wooden box, with a pillow. What is interesting: at home I have a box, which is more heart than box. And I have a box at the office: a big red heart, the same size, but the box is sealed, you cannot see in it. I am the only one who can see inside, all the others see just a box. In a professional context, I feel it is more appropriate to have a closed box. Same metaphor, slightly different context. At home there is a box, my children would certainly confirm. But very different relationships. At home: I lead with the heart. At work I lead with the box.

How do you use your metaphor in your daily work?

That is where your metaphor comes to life. You look at your to do list: I have that meeting with X: what is the heart that is needed here? And what is the box needed? Is this a conversation that needs to be principally boxed? Or does it need more heart? Where does it sit on the spectrum? How can I best have that conversation? Where am I today? Can I give a lot of heart or enough box? Maybe I am too tired or stressed. The heart can only do so much beating before it gives too much and you start to sense compassion fatigue,…

I am at a very interesting moment in my life: end of career, I have accompanied colleagues for 31 years in this company, I have done the things I have done, I have achieved what I have achieved. That was that. What does that add up to? What does that lead to for the next 20 years?

There will be a massive transition from paid work to other work. How does heart in a box work for a pensioner? I think it does…

What have you taken from this conversation?

Marking “heart in a box” as a decisive moment in my journey makes all sorts of sense.

I do believe in always thinking forward. What I become more aware of: How do you live life in the moment? All of life happens in the moment and we don’t capture the moment so well. Appreciating that and really living where you are at. This is where and what it is…

Thank you so much, Jacob, for this conversation. What I will remember most is the tension you talked about: the two seeming opposites in leadership, united in your metaphor. Maybe that is mastering life, when we are mastering the opposites in ourselves.

Curious to find your own leadership metaphor? Get in touch!


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