Achim Nowak

Here is a classic leadership conundrum.

They moved you to the C-Suite because you deliver results. They lavished you with praise along the way. And they were right: You are driven to succeed. Heck, you’re a corporate rock star.

And then, the moment you get there, they start to turn on you.

You still deliver. Your strategy is on fire. But now there are these insistent rumblings that you just don’t “play nice” with the rest of the gang …


Yes, you have just hit the CEO glass ceiling.

And you thought not meeting your forecasts would be your Achilles heel, right? Nope. They start to turn because you are not getting the warmth/competence mix right.

Confused? What the heck is a warmth/competence mix?

Consider the potent behavioral research by Amy J.C. Cuddy from the Harvard Business School and her colleagues Susan Fiske of Princeton and Peter Glick of Lawrence University (“Connect to Lead,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2013, p. 56). Their work and a slew of corroborating research compellingly show that a great leader needs to be fueled by both competence AND warmth. Not all that surprising, right? But here’s the eye opener. In order to fully succeed, both warmth and competence need to be EQUALLY present.

I love the word “warmth.” We like to muddle it with lots of leadership jargon. Empathy. Emotional Intelligence. Extroversion. But warmth is something essential and primal that all of us experience kinesthetically. We “get it” deep down. And it is irresistible.

Here’s the personal price we pay when our warmth doesn’t match our competence:

A leader who we view as having lots of competence but lacking in warmth tends to elicit envy in us. And envy is a double-edged sort. Sure, it may include respect but it also contains a strong streak of resentment.

Conversely, a leader who is viewed as being warm but lacking in competence tends to elicit pity. Another double-edged emotion. Pity always harbors a kernel of compassion but more likely also a hefty lack of respect.

The Happy Warrior is the leader who gets the warmth/competence mix just right. Mind you, we’re not talking about the occasional display of social pleasantry here. The Happy Warrior embodies both warmth and competence equally, 24/7.

I will assume, for now, that there is no doubt about your competence. You have proven it over and over. That’s why they moved you to the C-suite in the first place. But here are 3 concrete ways in which you can turn up your warmth factor:

  • The genuine smile.  We know by now that a smile can melt an iceberg. A polite smile, however, won’t. A fake smile won’t, either.

A genuine smile is triggered by a powerful private association I have with the moment I am in, or any external stimulus that elicits a joyful association. So – know your inner and outer joy-triggers. Allow yourself to connect with them. And yes, please smile.  

  • The emotional cue.  We have stripped our written language down to the bone. We have made it crisp, clean, clear. Concise is helpful; cool, however, is not. And many of us are starting to speak in person as if we’re writing an email.

Warm up your conversations by adding good old-fashioned adjectives back into the mix. Adjectives are potent emotional cues. And emotional cues foster an emotional bond. It’s where commitment and buy-in begin.

  • The inquisitive “why.”  When we ask a “why” question, we reveal our desire to better understand another person’s values and motivators. A “why” question switches the focus from me (competence) to an interest in you (warmth). It is the most powerful personal connector in any social setting. Ask it often.

Hint: Don’t ask it like a lawyer. Ask it like a social worker. A “why” question is not an inquiry, it is a statement of sincere interest and curiosity.

Achim Nowak is an international authority on leadership presence and the author of Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within (Allworth Press, 2013). He coaches entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the world.


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