Leading from the Heart…Emotions have incredible power. They motivate and shape behavior. To lead successfully we have to tap into our emotions, and learn how best to use them.

A Culture of Suppression

Protestantism may be in decline in many parts of the world, but the Protestant Work Ethic continues to dominate corporate culture. This puts Puritan assumptions into the way we work, excluding emotion as a frivolous distraction from the serious business of achievement.

It’s hardly breaking news that this culture of emotional suppressing is psychologically unhealthy and socially unproductive – over a hundred years of psychology have taught us that lesson over and again. Yet in leading we still try to set aside emotions – both our own and those of others.

It’s a waste of a valuable resource, one we’ve evolved over millions of years. Emotions exist for a reason, and to close them down is to close down our own potential.

The Power of Emotions

The reality is that people never entirely set aside their emotions, however hard they try. Ignoring them means ignoring such important factors as the disengagement and lack of productivity that arises from boredom or the anger and resistance that blocks so many change programs. We need to pay attention to what employees are feeling and how that affects their work.

Our own emotions are important too. As Seth Godin points out, intuition is successful pattern matching over time. Our instinctive responses can tell us a lot about the world, and make use of the fine tuning of our minds. Following them can lead to great success.

People admire great leaders for emotional reasons, even if they can give rational reasons to support them. There simply isn’t the time to analyze everything a leader stands for and weigh up whether they are worth following. Leaders use their own emotions to evoke the emotions they want in others, showing their anger, kindness or humor to bring these out in others and form a bond.

Connecting with customers is also about understanding emotions and building a bond through them, as shown by the examples of TOMS. Evoking emotion humanizes a brand, and makes a deeper and more enduring connection than novelty or rationality. If you close down your own emotions, how can you understand what emotions your brand and business are evoking?

Even trust, whether in a leader or in their brand, isn’t built on rational analysis. Trust is vital to getting people to following you, and so you need to evoke the emotions that will encourage it.

Combining Thought and Feeling

This isn’t to say that you should give up on rationality and manage by whim – far from it. Emotions can lead us astray if we don’t stop to consider what they mean.

Say someone pitches you a project, and the pitch meeting makes you uncomfortable. That feeling means something, but you need to think about where it comes from. Is it a sign of something amiss with the project, the presenter, or even you? Does it mean that you shouldn’t go ahead with this project? That the employee is in the wrong role? Or that deep down you know your own time would be better spent elsewhere?

It’s through this combination of thoughts and feelings that we can achieve and usefully apply one of the most important factors in leadership – empathy for others. Empathy is all about recognizing feelings. Those feelings will not always be productive, but when we understand them we’re able to create a bond.

If we can accept emotions, both in ourselves and others, and see what lies behind them, then we can turn them to our advantage.

The mind is a powerful tool. Don’t let a large part of it go to waste.