Backbone and Heart

For those of you who are Canadian, you are probably familiar with the great lyrics of Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip.  The combination of his words and his unique voice are iconic in Canadian music.  I’m particularly fond of his song Boots or Hearts as an interesting bonding between two things that we wouldn’t normally associate with each other.  The connection as established in the lyrics is that “like boots or hearts, oh when they start, they really fall apart”.

That’s the beauty of music and poetry.  Words are used to paint pictures.

I’ve been reading a book lately that brought a similar word pair in front of me.  The book is called Executive Coaching With Backbone and Heart by Mary Beth O’Neill.  The pairing of backbone and heart in the context of this book really resonated with me.  The concept is introduced as a necessity for executive coaches to present to their clients with both backbone and heart.  Backbone provides the strength to challenge executives to lead authentically. Heart gives the coach the ability to stay engaged and reach out even in the midst of difficulty.

I get how this is important as a coach.  But what strikes me even more is how this odd couple of words are so core to being an effective leader.


Leadership is about business results. But it is also about leading people to achieve those results.  Backbone is about setting strategy, defining plans, executing, overcoming challenges, setting agendas, measuring and many other things required to achieve business results. Heart is about caring for your team, developing people, understanding their desires and challenges, providing for work / life balance and helping resolve internal challenges to name a few things.

How many leaders do we know that have a distinct leaning to one polarity over the other? Do you know any leaders that “always take the hill but don’t really care about the body count”? How about leaders who are very caring for the needs of their team but aren’t so effective at getting the results that are needed to sustain that set of jobs?

These styles can go beyond an individual leader to be embodied in the culture of an organization.  In Calgary, Canada where I live there was a very famous merger between two companies in the 1990’s which was colloquially labelled “G.I. Joe Meets The Care Bears” when they tried to put the cultures together. As you can imagine, there was a fair amount of angst involved in aligning G.I. Joe’s backbone with the heart of the Care Bears!

I think it is more likely that a leader has capacity for both of these styles.  It is just that we lean more towards one than the other.  It can also be that in certain circumstances we have a natural tendency towards backbone … perhaps when there is a major issue on the table, while in other circumstances we present heart first … for example we extend deadlines when the team is having challenges completing a project.

My thinking is that team members want their leaders to have both at all times.  They want to be challenged by the backbone, knowing that the heart is there to help them reach their goals. They want the backbone to hold them accountable, knowing that they will get constructive feedback and development from the heart to help them grow.


The other thing I believe team members to want is consistency.  They want to know that their leader doesn’t swing wildly between styles. They want to know, within a reasonable range, how their leader will appear each day.  They also want to know that everyone is treated everyone fairly within these principles.  That isn’t to say that each one is treated exactly the same.  In fact I think there is an expectation that each will be treated with the combination of backbone and heart that is right for them.

When leaders find this balance, I think what we will find is a high performance team. When we ignore the balance we may find, like boots or hearts, things fall apart.

What are your experiences with this idea?  How have you seen backbone and heart used well by leaders? As always I love to hear from you!

While you are at it … might as well have a listen to The Tragically Hip and Boots or Hearts.

Published by

Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

8 thoughts on “Backbone and Heart

  1. I think you’re right — both are necessary — and challenging. Perhaps for both to be strong, compassion needs to be their foundation — no matter how challenging or dramatic the impact of a decision, when it is served with compassion, both heart and backbone are strengthened, which results in stronger leadership and teams.

  2. First off, the I like to turn the Hip way up loud while doing housework and boots and hearts is one of my faves!

    A wonderful post Ian, the part that really jumped out at me was: The other thing I believe team members to want is consistency. They want to know that their leader doesn’t swing wildly between styles. They want to know, within a reasonable range, how their leader will appear each day. I think consistency speaks to integrity. This was an area that I had to really work hard at.

    Happy Sunday Ian!

  3. I love this post Ian for a couple of reasons, 1- I love The Hip 🙂 your ability to send out your leadership thoughts through songs is wonderful. 2 – Your comments on consistency in my mind are right on the money. I remember years ago asking my Uncle what is the success of your long term marriage its very impressive, his answer…”Your Aunt”…he simply said I know every day who I’m waking up to, she is always constant in who she is and how she acts. I admire that in a person / leader. I try everyday to be that person 🙂

    I think I’ll look at getting that book!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s