HomeVolume 7October 2022 Subtle skills for authentic leadership: heartificial intelligence

GUILA CLARA KESSOUS is a member of Harvard University’s affiliated Institute of Coaching, the UNESCO artist for peace, and an art therapist.  Here she writes about the recent paradigm shifts in leadership and how present-day leaders require subtle collective skills rather than being super humans.

In recent years, we have challenged the narrow vision of a leader as someone “strong, knowledgeable, and a great communicator,” someone who can leverage their expertise to mobilize and create followership. Behind this heroic fantasy leader stands a human being who has spent their life accumulating knowledge, without worrying too much about its application and, especially, without worrying about relationships. For a super-leader, managing relationships is the manager’s prerogative (those nice facilitators who spend their time managing ego conflicts). So as soon as the leader faces the reality of also being a manager, trouble starts.

Without managerial skills, a leader is not really up to the task. Even the most technical management position involves cross-functional interactions with other departments, and connections with other teams.

The key to success in this delicate transition from controlling leadership to equitable management is behavioral skills, particularly the so-called “subtle” skills.

From Ego to Eco

The word “subtle” derives from Latin and refers to two notions:

  1. Something difficult to perceive, and
  2. Finesse and delicacy in realization.

Subtle skills are twofold: if they are difficult to perceive because of their intangible nature, they are also highly accurate and incisive for those who can apply them.

Let’s take the example of an executive expert promoted to a managerial position. When an organization uses the function of management, it means either “management of” or “management over.” Panicked by the new level of coercive power they have, the executive often seeks refuge in the skills they acquired during their years of study, however, this is not what is expected of a leader, who must not only inform which direction to take (a GPS can also do that) but also be the direction.

Here is the subtlety: those who follow will no longer follow the information, but will seek to emulate a leader. They will be inclined to follow someone who knows how to use emotional intelligence and relational management to utilize the power of the collective.

This is what Professor Otto Scharmer presented in his Theory U at MIT, highlighting the five necessary stages of collective intelligence: observation, perception, being present, crystallization, and deployment to bring about a stage of collective consciousness.

The subtle skills required by the new manager are to meet the team, listen to the directions of the different participants, and understand what directional synthesis is proposing about the concerns of the system by comparing them with the reality of the market.

Theory U is based on the success of the collective synthesized by the sagacity of an open-minded leader to be completely present to others. “New leaders will have to be able to drive attention on change without driving too much attention on themselves,” said Ronald Heifetz, director of the Harvard University Leadership Education Project. Subtle skills invite us to shift from egocentricity to eco-centricity; they reflect a greater maturity of leadership compared to a top-down pyramidal system.

New Leadership Subtleties: How to Systematize Enthusiasm and Embodiment?

The most remarkable subtlety happens when leadership is paired with concepts that seem to be at odds with a traditional view: progressive leadership, emotional leadership, situational leadership, and benevolent leadership. Spiritual leadership is the best example of two juxtaposed notions, because any form of spirituality is suspect in the management sphere, immediately evoking a religious figure who wants to lead their flock like a guru. And for the followers of spirituality, the word “leadership” distorts the very essence of a transcendental idea, so much so that the implied resonance of profitability is offending.

Spiritual leadership is an apparent paradox because it brings the material and the immaterial together, but there is a genuine craze for the term in business nowadays and it can be explained by the need to include more subtle criteria among the indicators of managerial success.

Far from being an incursion of religion into the corporate sphere, spiritual leadership explores an “energetic” dimension of governance, with the concept of followership no longer subject to a simple technocratic hierarchy, but instead to a charismatic figure who embodies its messages. First mentioned by Professor Louis Fry at the University of Texas, this approach to leadership insists on the importance of intrinsic motivation through the leader’s values, attitudes, and behavior. It is based on a schematic model in the form of quadrants, just like emotional or situational intelligence.


As with presencing, the starting point is always a leader’s awareness of their relationship with self, which allows them to be fully available to build cohesion through three main components: vision, hope and faith in the future, and benevolence toward others.

There is a growing interest in France in spiritual leadership, thanks to the debate on enthusiasm and incarnation. Both enthusiasm and incarnation imply a transcendental relationship based on a charismatic rather than an intellectual energetic presence. Therefore, the subtlety is to understand the importance of self-giving in a leader who wishes to inspire followership. Self-giving is fundamental to spiritual leadership.

The subtlety is to understand the importance
of self-giving in a leader who wishes
to inspire followership. Self-giving is fundamental
to spiritual leadership.


Leadership at Heart: Heartificial Intelligence

Self-giving does not mean “forgetting yourself in others.” Today’s leaders cannot afford a sacrificial posture that is lost in a kind of wild empathy. Instead, it involves a heart-to-heart resonance with followers, which allows them to better understand the ecology of their system.

It involves the principles of Social Permaculture and the Symbiotic Economy, linking intellect and personal responsibility to the collective. As Isabelle Delannoy advocates in The Symbiotic Economy, it is based on the symbiosis of human intelligence, the power of ecosystems, and tools. The leadership challenge is in finding the right balance to regenerate them instead of exhausting them; to create a system that works without burning out either the leader or the followers. This is also what Gunter Pauli advocates when he talks about the Blue Economy.

How to apply this level of subtlety to the very heart of inspiration at the corporate level? How to re-consider what we think is at the bottom of the ladder in our systemic worldview and, instead, make it the engine of a humanistic recycling economy?

In this sense, the leader and the follower are two sides of the same coin in a circular economy. Restoring a person’s pride can have benefits for everyone in the system since all are intimately connected. This is what we call leadership from the heart: not only human and benevolent leadership but also courageous leadership of being oneself in front of others, and especially for others.

Could this subtle Heartificial Intelligence save leadership from the dehumanization of Artificial Intelligence, while we wait for leaders to have an NFT rating? This is highly possible!

Illustrations by Мария Гисина


Guila Clara Kessous

Guila Clara Kessous

Guila was appointed UNESCO Artist for Peace in January 2012, in light of her commitment to promoting and defending human rights through art. She has taught at Sciences Po, Harvard University, Boston and Oxford Universities, University of Ge... Read More