Nurse Leadership - Warmth and Strength


Published: 01 March 2016

Cover image for article: Nurse Leadership - Warmth and Strength

If great leadership is the ability to influence, inspire and motivate others to achieve, what are the qualities that make this happen? According to John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut, the answer lies in the delicate balance of warmth and strength, or likeability and the ability to get things done.

These qualities are seen in influential people like Oprah Winfrey and world leaders like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They come across to us as warm and likable, with an unspoken quality that makes us aware of their strength.

Kohut and Neffinger, and also Sheryl Sandberg, talk about the uneven playing field when considering warmth and strength from a gender-specific perspective. According to Neffinger and Kohut men displaying strength through overt anger and aggression are not judged as harshly as a woman would be who uses the same behaviour. As Sheryl Sandstrom says, “Both men and women do, in fact, demand more time and warmth from women in the workplace. We expect greater niceness from women and can become angry when they don’t conform to that expectation.”

To convey warmth and strength Amy Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger suggest we use the following behaviours.

How to Convey Warmth

Tone of voice – use a tone that conveys friendship and collegiality. Speak in a lower pitch as you would if you were confiding in a friend. Demonstrating that they are like you and you are like them builds rapport.

Validate feelings – acknowledge how people are feeling. You don’t need to agree with them but rather show that you are empathetic. Rapport is more likely to be established because the recipient feels heard and understood.

Smile – a genuine smile conveys so much. We are constantly assessing facial expressions and unconsciously making decisions about whether someone is a friend or foe. We respond to a smile by also smiling. As the leader, your mood and behaviour has an impact. Take control and decide on the impact you want to make.

Be self-deprecating – show you can make mistakes and take missteps. Demonstrating that you are flawed and that you are prepared to laugh about it makes you more likable.

Projecting Strength

Stand up straight – your posture conveys a message. How you carry yourself means something. Confident people with a purpose and a mission don’t slouch.

Speak in a low tone – lower tones convey more strength and authority.

Believe you have the right to lead – avoid undermining yourself with a lack of self-belief. Fear or hesitancy will not convey your strength.

Stand your ground – don’t raise your voice. Listen to others – assess the situation and state your point of view.

Take up space – simple ways to take up space are to stand up tall or to stand with your hands on your hips. When sitting men can sit with their legs wide apart, while women can sit up straight and lean in.

Use eye contact – muscles around our eyes belie our true feelings. When you say what you mean your eyes will send a powerful message.

Understanding the warmth and strength equation of effective leadership behaviour will help you create the workplace where people flourish. A place where people care about the work they produce and the patients benefit from the excellent service provided.

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  • John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut, Compelling People. Hudson Street Press, 2013.
  • Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger, “Connect, Then Lead”, Harvard Business Review, 2013.
  • Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In.  Ebury Publishing, 2015. 



Portrait of Janette Cooper
Janette Cooper

Janette Cooper is a registered nurse, currently working as a gastroenterology procedure nurse at Noarlunga Hospital. She has a Bachelor of Nursing, a Graduate Certificate in Health Service Management from Flinders University, and a certificate in Gastroenterology Nursing from The Queensland University of Technology. In 2012 she began a life coaching course with The Coaching Institute in Melbourne. It has allowed her to combine her two passions of nursing and personal development. She divides her time between gastroenterology nursing and promoting personal development and leadership by means of frequently published articles through Ausmed, leadership presentations and workshops and coaching health professionals wanting to develop their leadership potential. See Educator Profile