Passionate leadership: the danger when the heart overrules the head

Passion. It's a vital quality for leaders of all stripes who want to motivate staff to perform at their peak.

Sometimes it can spill over in abundance, as it did for Sunrise host and chairman of the Port Adelaide AFL football club, David Koch, recently.

After his team suffered an 84-point loss, he let rip on social media, tweeting that their performance was a "disgrace"; a pronouncement which caused considerable consternation in the ranks.

Raging bullishness

Kochie's not the only Australian leader to hit the headlines of late, courtesy of a style that can occasionally appear a little less than measured. Geelong's popularly elected mayor and former paparazzi king Darryn Lyons maintained he was "bullish, but never a bully" after he and his council were sacked last month following an inquiry into the management culture revealed some controversial methods.

So, does letting your passion for the gig runneth over do more harm than good when you're at the helm of an organisation? How can senior managers strike a balance between leading with their hearts and their heads?

It inspires people when you're passionate and it scares them when you're obsessed.

Matt Jackson

Passion versus obsession

Start by trying to develop self awareness – enough that you can recognise the difference between passion for your role or organisation and its darker doppelganger, obsession, says business coach Matt Jackson.

While the former is desirable, and a big part of the reason people rise through the ranks, the latter can be a force for destruction. "They can both feel the same, but only one is a productive thing," Jackson says.

"Only one is sustainable. You can tell it's passion if you love what you're doing. Obsession just wants the job done."

Excitement and vision

But while it can be tough for those at the top to clock the difference, it's usually apparent to those who work with and for them.


"It inspires people when you're passionate and it scares them when you're obsessed," Jackson says. "One is creative and one is disruptive."

You're on the right side of the line if you're able to create an energetic force for people to attach to emotionally, belong to and believe in, says corporate psychologist and human resources specialist Virginia Mansell.

"It is critical for leaders in business … to create the excitement and vision, the personal energy for people to look up to and believe in and [to have] some strategies and techniques to manage their own feelings of frustration when under stress and pressure to perform," she says.

Who gets it right?

Corporate Australia throws up plenty of examples of leaders who've nailed it. Think 'chairman of everything' David Gonski who's been at the helm of a string of blue chip organisations, served as the Chancellor of the University of NSW and headed a high-profile national review of school funding in 2011.

"He provides good intellectual [input], well thought-through views and is clearly passionate about diversity," Mansell says.

Other standouts include former NSW Opposition leader turned businessman John Brogden, who channels personal experience plus passion into his role as Lifeline chairman; Lieutenant General David Morrison who has won kudos for his pursuit of gender diversity in the armed services; and World Vision CEO Tim Costello who marries purpose with uncompromising passion for humanitarian causes.

The temper trap

Fail to strike a balance that's right for your leadership role and you risk damaging your credibility and effectiveness on several fronts, Mansell warns.

"Employees could disengage, board members and the broader community could lose trust in the stability of the leader to lead the ongoing performance of their employees," she says.

Behaving in a strategic and measured way is a key part of the leadership journey for up and coming executives, and part of that process includes learning to temper passion with reason, according to executive coach Andrew Sparks.

"There's a lot of people who are great at following their heart and you see this early on with business owners and leaders who want to go and inspire and do big things," Sparks says.

"The more educated you become in business, the more logical a decision has to be."

Follow the leader

The higher you move up the ladder, the more zeroes you need to account for – and the greater the potential impact of every action and decision you take, Sparks adds.

"It has to be the correct decision instead of a fleeting idea or fleeting moment of passion. But the passion has to be there for a leader, you've got to be able to sell the vision to your company …

"These days people are looking for fulfillment from their jobs … and people want to follow a leader who's passionate about something and passionate about making an impact."

Has passion for your role got you into hot water at work? Or have you worked for someone who has a healthy dose of it? Share your experience in the Comments section.