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  • Writer's pictureWSL Leadership

The Complicated Relationship Between Leadership and Emotions

Leaders are in a tough spot when it comes to emotions. They are expected to respond gracefully to a wide range of emotions in other people but, in some spaces, expected to have no emotions of their own. They are often expected to inspire and rouse the emotions in others, while they are credited with creating a toxic culture if they show negative emotions.

What is a leader to do about this tricky double standard set of expectations?

Before we get to that, a minor detour into vision statements. I recently worked with a leadership crew that wanted to create a new vision statement for their organization. The leadership wanted ideas from everyone at an upcoming all-hands meeting, so I helped review their plan for getting that input.

I noticed that their plan dove into the content before building connection, so I helped them insert a brief (4-minute) exercise that got individuals talking in small groups and, more importantly, got the participants to connect with their most positive emotions attached to the organization.

Next, we cut out a long fact-oriented series of questions to get to questions we thought would prompt the most inspiring, aspirational, and emotional responses. I’m much more confident that leaders facilitating smaller group conversations will get the type of ideas they’re looking for - and are more likely to get engagement from more participants.

Vision statements are about eliciting a positive emotional response, and these leaders have a good plan for collecting ideas for their next vision statement. (I’ll let you know how it goes.)

Back to leadership and emotions - this short story about the organization and its vision statement makes me think even more about how leadership has a complicated relationship with emotions. The original plan for the vision statement process did not structure in any aspects of emotions. There’s no way of knowing, but I think their original method would have resulted in a to-do list and not a vision statement.

The leaders of this organization are passionate about their work and the positive impact the organization has on the community but stumbled slightly when planning to get a similar emotional relevance from the rest of the organization.

How can a leader simplify that complicated relationship with emotions?

  • Take a look at the psychological safety in your organization. When engaging in the organization's work, are people regularly expected to be not their whole selves? If you’re in a space with low emotional safety, work on many fronts to fix that first.

  • As a leader, get more aware of your emotional states. The more practice you have naming your emotions and being aware of your habits of action while experiencing your various emotional states, the more easily you’ll be able to manage your behavior and the perception of your emotions.

  • Experiment with communicating your emotional state with trusted colleagues. “I feel…” is a great start (and may open lines of communication).

  • Ask your colleagues how they feel and don’t let them off the hook if they say happy, sad, angry or that they feel like doing something. Get to the emotional state.

It’s ok to be angry, frustrated, let down, aggravated, and disappointed. It’s also ok to be joyful, elated, proud, satisfied and pleasantly surprised. The point is that the more you can communicate your emotions and understand the emotional state of the people around you, the stronger leader you will be. Leaders who are self-aware regarding their emotions are more emotionally intelligent and build stronger relationships, teams and organizations.


Want to manage your emotions better when you have a conflict? Check out my Emotionally Intelligent Conflict Management Checklist.

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