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3 Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Leaders

Like it or not, emotions are a big part of leadership. Here's how to deal with them--without becoming your team's therapist.
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I once had a coaching client express her frustration with the inability of a senior team to get behind a plan and get moving. The client was a good leader with a good team.  But the organization’s growth, its pace of change, and uncertainty about its future had led to a series of false starts. The CEO was exasperated and asked, essentially, “What is it that the team does not get?”

While the team may have intellectually “got it” about the new plan, their collective emotions did not. Eventually, the CEO had a powerful insight: It takes a large heart to be a good leader.

If leadership is mainly engaged in human relations, then leadership, at its core, is largely about emotions.  Leaders would do well to reflect on the emotionality of leadership, especially during challenging situations and periods of self-doubt.  Here are three factors to consider.

1.     A leader is an emotional container for the group

Psychology refers to a “container” as a safe situation in which issues and problems can be examined and worked through without the participants being damaged, punished, or “burned.”  (Walter Isaacs at MIT has researched this container state and writes persuasively about its nuances.) Practically speaking, a container is the time and place when people come together for conversation.

If you want to encourage honest feedback, direct discussion, conflict resolution, and clear decisions, you must create and maintain an environment for this to occur. That’s the leader’s responsibility.

As a leader, you must welcome the differing perspectives and intense debate that strong teams will generate. If you stifle this discussion and passion, you risk losing great ideas and you may “burn” people just at the moment they need to feel safe to express a contrarian point of view. Many leaders unwittingly inflict this damage because of a need to be right, or a need to be seen as being right, which shuts down the voices of others.

Second, a leader who understands this container dynamic will be much more attuned to the emotions that can disrupt a team, such as uncertainty, distress, anxiety, and fear of the future.  This awareness allows a leader to have a direct discussion about these very natural reactions to challenges and change. 

I am not suggesting that a leader play therapist. Quite the opposite. There is a tremendous difference between diving into the emotionality of others by trying to provide solutions, and being aware of these emotions in order to address them productively.  Leaders sometimes avoid the latter because they are afraid of the former.

2.     A Leader must have a personal emotional container

As a leader, how do you productively address the emotions of others?  By addressing your own first.

A leader must have a personal emotional container—a safe setting--in order to safely work through fears, doubts, and uncertainties. Using the group container as a model, you need a time and place to discuss your own emotions and reactions to them. Start by having an ongoing, honest discussion with yourself. Then enlist the help of a coach, mentor, or very good friend who does not have a vested interest in your leadership. 

By creating a dedicated space to focus on these deeply personal issues, rather than let them run roughshod over your leadership, you’ll put yourself in a better position to be emotionally healthy and to attend to the emotional needs of others, when appropriate.

3.     Ignore emotions at your peril

The client I mentioned above came to realize that she was split: Half of her was uncertain about how to investigate emotional issues. The other half simply did not want to have to do this work.  She wondered, “Why should I have to work on their emotional state?” 

Of course, the answer is that she did not have to, and neither do you.  But that does not alter the fact that emotional issues are real and ever-present. 

If you neglect to proactively address emotional issues with your team, you lose a powerful opportunity to strengthen the shared purpose of the group.  And if you actively resist the influence of emotions by shutting down or avoiding these conversations, people will be disinclined to tell you the truth.

The importance of emotions at work is a growing topic, especially among innovative companies. 

Chip Conley, Founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, has spoken of the CEO as the "Chief Emotions Officer" with responsibility for the emotional health of the organization.  This is a useful perspective for every organization, and it is made possible by the emotional health of leaders.

Last updated: May 28, 2012

BRIAN EVJE | Columnist | Management Consultant, Slalom Consulting

Brian Evje helps people and organizations lead change and growth. This involves a process consultation approach to leadership (coaching and development), change (organization and culture), and organizational health (strategy, design, effectiveness, and fitness.) Brian is a Principal of Equipoise Alliance, an organizational consultancy, a Member of The Change Leaders, and an Executive-in-Residence at Astia, a global not-for-profit propelling women's full participation as entrepreneurs and leaders in high-growth businesses. He is a graduate of Santa Clara University, and the Master's program Consulting and Coaching for Change at HEC School of Management, Paris/Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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