THE BLOG
10/31/2013 04:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Role Model Who Uses Small Gestures In a Big Way

The Leading Role Models series shines a spotlight on 12 people who achieved success the "right way" -- with heart.

A little over a year ago, I picked up a copy of Douglas Conant's Touchpoints. I could not help but smile as I read; here was a book that beautifully stated the essence of heart-based leadership, the principle on which my life's work is based.

Touchpoints communicates important concepts -- especially how to bring mastery to every interaction and the importance of people within organizations -- all described and illustrated with great insight and passion. I reached out to Doug on Twitter to let him know how fantastic I thought his book was. We made arrangements to meet in real life, and I must say, Doug is even more impressive in person. Our meeting left a deep impression on my heart. 

So, when I thought about role models for heart-based leadership, Doug Conant was the perfect person. Here is my interview with Doug.

Lolly Daskal: What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

Doug Conant: The most important leadership characteristic to me is more of a leadership "idea." It's the notion of being tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people in a synergistic way. Leaders should strive to set a very high standard for performance and to work with people in a noticeably caring and deeply invested way -- it's crucial to do both of these things simultaneously to achieve a superior and enduring leadership experience, both for the leader and for the people working with the leader. This abundant approach lets the individuals involved know that you have their back while also upholding high expectations. This ties in with my belief that, in leadership, the "soft stuff" is the "hard stuff." As much as a leader's high IQ may help him or her to grasp the numbers, without a strong EQ (emotional quotient), without the crucial elements of understanding and communication, it's easy to get derailed. To be successful over time, you have to be authentic in each moment.

Lolly Daskal: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

Doug Conant: Many of the skills necessary to lead a sizeable organization remain the same today as they did decades ago when people first began studying the practice of leadership. Many of the guiding principles are the same. But there is a new crop of interesting challenges that make what we do as leaders more nuanced than ever before. The environment in which we're called to lead is drastically and tangibly different. There are two powerful forces impacting all of our contributions now. One is the explosion of information and the 'attention economy.' Business is being conducted, and changed, at speeds that are immeasurably faster than ever before. Another explosive, albeit very positive and integral change, is the simultaneous advent of diversity in the modern workplace -- gender diversity, ethnic diversity, geographic diversity, lifestyle diversity, and generational diversity. There are five generations of people in the current workforce. Leaders must adapt and deal with these challenges. There are ingredients here sufficient to cook up massive amounts of stress so leaders need to be evermore skillful and committed to navigating the changing business landscape effectively.

Lolly Daskal: Is success a matter of what you know or who you are?

Doug Conant: Emphatically, both. What you know and who you are equally crucial. Leaders must use both their heads and their hearts. A successful leader has to be highly and unquestionably competent -- their expertise should be comprehensive. People have to trust you know what you're talking about. But a leader is also responsible for using that expertise in the most effective way. That's where the 'who you are' (aka your character) part becomes exceedingly important. It's our job to use our knowledge in the most impactful way and to do so with integrity. We have to walk the talk. We have to do what we say we're going to do. Successful leaders should treat their leadership as a craft to be carefully honed and ever improving. The better we become, the more our competence and depth of character combine to form the most helpful contributions moment to moment.

Lolly Daskal: Who is someone who has inspired you in your life?

Doug Conant: Many years ago I was fired from my job as the Director of Marketing for the Parker Brothers Toy and Game Company. What was initially a traumatic and chaotic experience led to my crossing paths with someone whose words still inspire me to this day. I was linked with an outplacement councilor -- a straight shooter named Neil MacKenna. His first four words to me were, "How can I help?" Four simple words. But with a tremendous impact. He began each interaction from a service standpoint; he wanted to contribute in the most meaningful way. To this day I'm inspired by this service-based approach. I always strive to ask, "How can I help?" in each moment.

What's most remarkable to me about the long-lasting impact of these words is how profound a difference a brief interaction can truly make. Today, the information age has morphed into the "interruption" age. People are swamped with work and emails. And just when they hunker down to get something done, a colleague knocks on the door. Or the phone rings. People tend to push these interruptions away in order to focus on the "real work." But these brief interactions are the "real work" today and they will be more so tomorrow. We need to show up for these moments in a powerful way and be as helpful as we can be.

Lolly Daskal: Thank you, Doug.

Douglas R. Conant is a New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker. In 2011, he founded ConantLeadership, a growing community of people dedicated to improving the quality of leadership in the 21st century. He also serves as Chairman of Avon Products and Chairman of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute (KELI) at Northwestern University. From 2001 to 2011, Conant served as CEO of Campbell Soup Company where he led over 18,000 people, reversed a precipitous decline in market value, and improved employee engagement and workplace culture. Join the leadership conversation with Doug at www.conantleadership.com

For more on heart based leadership series on Huffington Post please read:
Frank Sonnenberg Leading Role Models
Barbara Kimmel - A Role Model You Can Trust

More info on Heart Based Leadership: http://www.lollydaskal.com

© 2013 Lolly Daskal. All rights reserved.