Moods and emotions have an ambiguous place in our understanding of leadership these days. I just got off a call with participants in one of a coaching program I teach in, and the examples they gave of client reactions and challenges show that many in our culture are not willing to look at emotions as part of leadership and professional responsibilities.
In the 90’s, Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence and revealed the research that showed that emotional skills are a direct correlate to measurable performance in management and leadership roles. He said that those who scored low in emotional intelligence tended to underperform their objectives by 20% on average, and those with high emotional intelligence tended to over-perform their objectives by 20% on average.
We have some realities that we are going to have to learn to live with. Firstly, we are always in a mood or emotion. To be “unemotional” or “dispassionate” is also a mood and an emotional state. Secondly, neuroscience shows that part of our rationality, our ability to think things through and make good decisions, is inextricably linked to our emotions. Emotions help us remember and choose paths among options, and people with damage to the emotional areas of their brains appear to be clear, lucid, and bright, but they can’t form a plan, execute it, or keep commitments. Thirdly, effective leaders and high-performance teams are already emotionally effective as well, and we all need to know how that works.
The Business of Emotions
Emotions are a predisposition to the actions we will take, the decisions we will make, and the outcomes we will achieve. A team or team member in resentment, resignation, or anxiety cannot perform at a high level. Distrust will erode coordination and teamwork. Lack of care for the outcomes of work or of their consequences for customers will not produce excellence.
How then do we engage in emotional learning and leadership including emotions? We need to overcome a couple of old prejudices. One old prejudice is that emotions are interferences to clear thinking and effective actions. This is a 500-year-old story that arose with the celebration of rationalism, which regarded the emotions – called the “passions” then – as a subjective interference with the objective, scientific approach based on solid evidence. Of course, we don’t want to make important decisions from anger or fear. But this posture leaves out the emotional relevance for action that produces commitment, ownership, and dedication.
The second prejudice is that emotions are a personal domain best left out of the professional behavior. Yet professional behavior defines a set of emotional skills, not a prohibition to them. Emotions and moods are a professional responsibility, skill, and are a domain of design for the effective leader. We can observe, understand, and influence our moods and emotion and those of others. We can’t control them, but neither are we their victims. And our emotional skills must be authentic, not sham mock caricatures of emotional states – we can all smell inauthenticity.
Emotions and moods are connected to our outlook to the future. We can have moods and emotions that open possibilities like ambition, curiosity, resolution, dedication, acceptance, lightness, and joy. And we can have moods and emotions that close possibilities like resignation, resentment, anxiety, fear, distrust, and overwhelm. Shifting authentically from closing to opening moods is part of the leadership skill set, and can be learned.
On our call, we discussed an example of an executive team that was not only resigned but seemed committed to staying resigned. Sometimes, our stories of “why we can’t” are stronger than our stories of “what we can.” And we develop comfort zones where we live with our stories and moods. Resentment, resignation, and righteousness are moods in which we don’t have to take responsibility or take risks; it’s up to someone else to change things – not a very powerful leadership stance.
Our moods are associated with the future we see – good or bad – and our interpretation of what we can do about that future. This is where leadership comes in. When we shift the action we see or are willing to take, we can shift the future, and this will shift the mood. When we shift the mood, say from resignation to speculation and readiness for new action, we shift the actions that will arise and the future that we see.
We all have tendencies to fall into certain moods and emotions, and through self-observation and awareness, we can open choices about following our tendencies or instead go into new territory. It’s a new dimension for most people to practice emotional skills, but it’s an inescapable part of what shapes our possibilities, actions, and outcomes. It’s leadership skill and a leadership practice.
To listen to an audio recording of a conference call about Cultivating Emotionally Skillful Leadership, CLICK HERE.