Emotionally conscious leaders

Why Emotion is Vital in Strategy

Delivering results requires leaders’ full capabilities in that strategies need rational rigour and emotional input. How do you as a leader harness head and heart?

“I’m going to lose the script,” said Dr Rochelle Walensky, head of the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, live on national (and global) television. She seemed on the verge of tears as she continued for the next few minutes. “I’m scared,” she admitted.

Restraint, stoicism, calmness in the face of crisis – we code this as leadership. But here was leadership of a raw, vulnerable kind. It was the right strategic pivot, based entirely on her emotions. And, as an unfiltered signal of what needed to be done, it was all the more powerful.

What, exactly, are emotions?

To appreciate the importance of emotions as a leadership instrument, and their influence upon strategies and decisions, let’s start with a dispassionate definition.

“According to the Oxford dictionary, an emotion is a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others, or an instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.”

There are two fundamentals here: emotions are distinct from reasoning, and because emotions are subconscious, they are intrinsically linked to our character. Resisting our emotions is essentially futile; rather, by becoming a more conscious leader we can capitalise on our emotions and use them to catalyse improvements in our own thinking and judgements.

Emotions are like data in that they can give insights into causes, and directions. What are our emotions if not how we relate to ourselves and to others? It may be as simple as this: love, fear, hope, rage, desire – these are elements of life. So, if we use them in strategic thinking, we bring the plans closer to reality. To life.

Emotions are pointers

Emotions can be tapped into as a complementary skillset to complement rationality. They manifest as feelings, as triggers or harbingers of needs; they are prompts for future-focused actions.

Almost every episode of the long-running legal drama, Suits, starts with the main character, Harvey Specter, facing a complex challenge. “No emotions. No feelings. Stay strong,” he swaggers. But it’s precisely when he disobeys his own advice that the lightbulb moment occurs and he is able to crack the seemingly insurmountable problem with a There’s a simple explanation for why this happens (in real life, that is).

"Allowing our emotions to surface, grappling with their shape and meaning, helps us understand not just our own reactions, but also the positions and judgements of others.”

The screen character of Harvey Specter is (partially) wise enough to realise this, saying later, “I’m against having emotions, not against using them.”

Suits episodes, too, often offer another lesson: it’s important to trust our instincts, to take time and make the effort to listen to our inner voice.

Inner work and insights

“Leaders wishing to truly engineer results, growth and value, in a purpose-led spirit, might look to the inner work required to develop emotional fortitude.”

This is the capacity to ‘zoom out’ by holding emotions up for evaluation and as an input into decisions. Then ‘zooming back’ into the issue, more informed of inner perspectives and wiser as to their relevance and weight in deciding what needs to be done.

This sounds like hard work, because it is!

But it will be hugely helpful. Let’s say something isn’t gelling in your evaluation of multiple scenario plans, and you’re frustrated. How deep is the source of that frustration? Is it annoyance at colleagues for not including more disruptive proposals? Is it anger at yourself for not briefing them? Perhaps it’s anxiety at the timeline – a different stressor. Understanding the emotional wellpoint and its degree can guide an appropriate, solution-oriented response. The ultimate strategy – better informed, more roundly considered – is likely to be improved.

This ability to engage with one’s innermost emotions, to intuit the finest degrees of their essence, and then to channel the appropriate response, can sometimes even be the difference between life and death. Nando Parrado, the leader of a small group of survivors of Flight 571 that crashed in the Andes in 1972, distilled his emotional tribulations during their 72-day existential struggle:

“If you’re afraid, you live. If you panic, you die.”

Strategy: facts and data, rigor, rationality and rationale, right?

Actually, it’s a myth that we can separate our emotions from our decisions. Further, more recent neuropsychology research suggests that the background processes of our emotions (as influencing or directing behaviour) and active cognition (absorbing and filtering information) are simultaneous, markedly so when complex tasks are being addressed. This makes intuitive sense – see what I did there?! – in that our mood, an overall sensibility to how we are feeling, shapes our decisions. Feeling optimistic (a mood associated with emotions of bravery and assertiveness)? There’s a good chance you’ll embrace more risk, and weigh the available data less. Feeling pessimistic? You’re then more likely to steer a conservative course, analyse the research deeply, even postpone the strategic decision.

Emotions also influence the very processes of our thinking

“Emotions impact our cognitive system.”

Here’s an example: Brown University psychiatry professor Judson Brewer points out the deceitful nature of worry, a state triggered by anxiety. Worry is a feint: it tricks our minds into believing that we are taking action, because stressing about something feels like we’re doing something. Further, when we create a solution to a problem simultaneous to worrying about it, we believe they are linked. Worry, we conclude, helps – whereas in reality worrying clouds judgement and makes thinking more difficult. The connection is incorrect, but worrying becomes a mental habit which is difficult to break.

These kinds of processes play out viscerally, watched live by millions, in sport. One of the first major sporting teams to recognise how emotion influences not just tactical considerations but, more crucially, split-second decision-making, were the All Blacks of 2007. Having crashed out in the World Cup quarter-final, a national sporting disgrace, five World Cups had slipped by without silverware. They needed to find a way to throw off the yoke of ‘chokers’.

The squad’s sports psychologists helped the players understand what was happening, instinctively and neurologically, in high-pressure situations. Then to work with, and through, the emotions associated with ‘freezing’, to help them reboot that famous All Black fearlessness. The All Blacks again became unstoppable, and proceeded to win the ensuing two World Cups, emphatically.

“It’s important, then, not only to be aware of our emotions, but to understand how they influence or even dictate our thinking."

The more we understand, the more emotional intelligence we can add to our judgements. Only then are we on the road to genuine emotional fortitude – the ability to integrate rational decision-making processes with emotional drivers, to bring expressive emotional attributes to the strategy table. To forge more effective all-round business strategies.

Bring our emotions to work – and allow them to work

Fundamentally, organisations are social structures. A rich trove of academic literature supports the generalisation that bringing emotional considerations into social issues results in sounder, fairer and more logical conclusions. Studies also support the argument that intense emotions stemming from personal experiences create not just improved logical reasoning around that experience, but also to a refined focus on tasks flowing from it.

A comprehensive, long-running study by global consultancy group Bain and The Economist Intelligence Unit concluded that having just four ‘significant strengths’ out of 33 identified characteristics, can forge inspirational leadership. Here’s the really exciting part: five of the 33 are directly associated with emotional awareness, expression and empathy.

"One of these, centredness, is identified as the nexus of all leadership attributes which can inspire, the precondition to using one’s leadership strengths effectively."

So, being more present, more aware, improving our capability to choose our responses: what would that mean for a leader’s performance, his or her strategies? Well, literally, unleashing our emotions – appropriately, of course – can make one an inspirational leader.

Cue culture

Emotions, channelled correctly, corral judgements around the values we wish to emphasise.

We know from the work of renowned business strategist Peter Drucker that strategy, no matter how conceptually innovative and rigorously compiled, on its own is not enough.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,”

Peter Drucker

An organisation’s culture is the value system and character blueprint, the foundation for what it does. And if we try to get to the heart of culture, it’s about how people feel about their organisation. This explicit link between emotions and culture directs successful leaders to tune into their organisation’s emotional climate and embrace these feelings – these emotions – in issues of vision and strategy, and to instil the appropriate value-driven behaviours.

Leadership strategies for a global economy

We can take a very broad perspective of this, too. Globalisation, the Internet-of-Things, hyper-competition, disruption – the very nature of what companies do has evolved significantly. Many CEOs now run boundaryless organisations with virtual structures, collaborative networks, and demanding productivity goals.

This context is also worth spotlighting. I’m often amazed at the number of people employed by huge companies: India-headquartered Tata Group has a workforce of 720,000; Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn 1.29m. These are dwarfed by Walmart, with 2.2m! Arguably, such gigantic workforces can only be led through top-down hierarchies, dictated visions and policies, watertight systems and rigorous governance. Partly, that may be true. But it’s precisely because corporations such as these have gigantic staff complements that its leaders will tap into and display emotional qualities.

"We all share the same emotions, so if a leader leads with the heart, it shows openness."

Listening space is created; respect is earned, and trust can grow. This can bring together myriad people. Diversity and inclusion cannot work as a functional tick-box exercise.

Companies, today, require leaders who guide, nurture and inspire

This gets into the territory of what Jim Collins calls the level 5 leader, “one blessed with a paradoxical blend of personal humility – that’s the x-factor of great leadership – with an utterly indomitable will.” Collins goes further in explaining the essence of level 5 leadership. It’s the idea of service to a cause. This is the bullseye of why emotions are so important in formulating strategies, because service is the action of helping, or doing work for someone.

"Cultivating level 5 leadership – inspiring others to serve the cause - requires a deep emotional underpinning."

An organisation’s culture is the value system and character blueprint, the foundation for what it does. And if we try to get to the heart of culture, it’s about how people feel about their organisation.


Barbara Kellerman, founder of Harvard’s Kennedy Centre for Leadership, offers interesting insights relevant to emotional awareness and how this translates to inspiring strategic leadership. She advises the inclusion of liberal arts courses in leadership learning, and urges leaders to think less about “refining [themselves] as individuals and more about reimagining the collective.” Intriguingly, she punts the emotion of admiration as a neglected aspect of leadership: following wisely, she believes, is “manifestly as important as leading wisely.”

Aggression as a sound strategy? You decide…

Here’s an illustration of how even the gurus shaping the world’s communications are subject to emotional spill-over into their companies’ strategies.

For years, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Apple’s Tim Cook have been openly hostile over multiple issues, apparently sharing a mutual dislike and often expressing anger at the other.

These emotions have infiltrated their respective company strategies, most recently in April when Apple’s iOS upgrades included a privacy feature allowing iPhone users to opt out of Facebook’s cross-platform tracking. For Facebook this is a blow, because their business model relies on this data collection as an enabler of advertising revenues.

Facebook’s strategies have recently included launching an antitrust lawsuit against Apple, and running consumer-targeted advertising campaigns which imply Apple’s tactics undermine small businesses.

Irrespective of our viewpoint on the dispute, the longstanding feud between the leaders of these two tech giants offers a fascinating angle on how emotions can play out in strategies affecting perhaps hundreds of millions of mobile phone users, and the online activities of billions.

It’s also interesting to contrast Cook’s and Zuckerberg’s behaviours with discoveries from John Gerzema’s ‘Athena Doctrine’ research of 64,000 people spanning the globe. Human nature is to shift towards feminine values in times of crisis, and respondents overwhelmingly prefer modern leaders to be empathetic and intuitive, and should demonstrate patience, longer-term thinking, and consensus-building.

“Perhaps the comparison allows us to conclude that it’s vital to bring the right emotions into our strategic thinking.”

If we do this well, leaders can shift from being good to being inspirational.

Bringing emotion into strategy improves the organisation in many ways

Emotive leadership inspires. By tugging at heartstrings, by making our blood boil, by pricking our nerves and scabbing at our sense of justice, emotions engage. They motivate us because they touch us. And motivated, inspired employees perform at more than double the productivity of contented employees, according to the Bain/EIU research.

Emotionally-informed corporate strategies help shift from shareholder value to stakeholder value. Doing well can also mean doing good. The sweet spot for value creation is where business performance meets societal needs. Recognising the company’s role in finding that point is in no small part the result of emotional introspection and a sensibility towards broader causes.

Emotionally insightful marketing strategies can generate brand, share and sales advantages. Consumer packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) responded rapidly to the Covid-19 crisis. Their multipronged communication strategy extended into a moving consumer-targeted campaign aimed at doing 2,021 acts of goodness this year. Despite the pandemic, P&G has delivered stellar financial results.

Emotionally-aware talent strategies create a more human-centric work environment and a more engaged workforce. Global talent researchers, Gallup, report that engagement is a lever for better results: companies scoring in the top quartile for employee engagement are 21% more profitable than bottom quartile organisations.

“A human-centric corporate culture translates to high performance.”

Harnessing emotions for performance

Successful strategies will always need the logic of trends, the purity of numbers, the analysis of rivals. It’s also true that understanding our emotions and working through and with them as part of our toolkits requires effort. That’s exactly why they lead to more human-centric judgements and approaches. To strategies that work.

Former American First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, observed that a mark of emotional maturity is realising what you value most. Not arriving at this understanding, she said, means “you have missed the whole point of what life is for.” Similarly, as a leader and in relation to our company’s strategies, if we don’t hold true to our emotions and allow them to resonate, our strategies may veer away from what is truly important. If strategies are ultimately designed to create value, best we formulate these strategies with the right human values in our hearts.

People move when they are moved. That includes ourselves as leaders. So here’s an acid test: do our strategies move us?

Ricky Robinson
Founder and CEO

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