Leading With Warmth and Strength

Last Updated: 08 September 2023

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Janette Cooper

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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 (2013), 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, who come across as warm and likable, with an unspoken quality that makes us aware of their strength.

There appears to be an uneven playing field when considering warmth and strength from a gender-specific perspective. Women displaying strength through overt anger and aggression are judged more harshly than men who do the same (Neffinger & Kohut 2013; Sandberg 2015).

According to Sandstrom (2015), '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.'

How can we portray a balance of warmth and strength in the workplace?

Nurses communicating with each other calmly

Strategies for Conveying Warmth and Strength

  • Tone of Voice: Use a tone that conveys friendship and collegiality. Speak in a lower pitch, as if you were confiding in a friend. Lower tones also convey more strength and authority.
  • Validate People’s Feelings: Acknowledge how people are feeling. You don’t need to necessarily agree with them, but be empathetic. Rapport is more likely to be established if the recipient feels heard and understood.
  • Smile: A genuine smile is a powerful conveyor of information. 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. In leadership positions, your mood and behaviour have an impact.
  • Don’t be Ashamed of Mistakes: Every person makes mistakes and takes missteps. Demonstrating that you are flawed and able to learn from your mistakes is a valuable skill.
  • Project Strength: Stand up straight – your posture conveys a message. The way in which you carry yourself carries connotations. Confident people with a purpose and a mission don’t slouch.
  • Be Confident: 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 respectfully.
  • Use Eye Contact: Muscles around our eyes belie our true feelings. When you speak honestly, your eyes will send a powerful message.

(Cuddy et al. 2013; Cuddy 2013)


Demonstrating warmth and strength in your leadership will help you create a workplace culture where people flourish and care about their work. In turn, patients will benefit from excellent service.


Neffinger, J & Kohut, M 2013, Compelling People, Hudson Street Press, New York.

Cuddy, JC, Neffinger, J & Kohut, M 2013, ‘Connect, Then Lead’, Harvard Business Review, viewed 31 May 2023, https://hbr.org/2013/07/connect-then-lead

Sandberg, S 2015, Lean In, Ebury Publishing, UK.

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