The Role Of Emotion In Leadership A Guest Post by Claire Foster

the best vision is insight phrase  on a vintage slate blackboard



As others have expressed in previous posts, a fundamental aspect of leadership is self-leadership – directing your own thinking, feeling and behaviour to achieve objectives. In learning about self-leadership, one thing that struck a chord with me is the idea of emotional intelligence, and the role of emotion in leadership. As a result, the theme of emotional intelligence has been a core part of my activities and exploration during the year. In this post I will be sharing some of what I have learnt about the role of emotion in leadership. It’s a summary of ideas that have come from reading widely, self-reflection, discussion with other CEED leaders, and also my experience representing the ACT in the Australian Ultimate Championships. (I will add a note here that I’m by no means a psychologist, so please let me know if I have made any factual errors in this post, and I will endeavour to correct them).

Emotion is central to decision making, motivation, creative insight, and learning

Many of us in the leadership program come from a scientific background. In science, we tend to value reasoning and logic, and can often view emotion and feeling as unwelcome – a barrier to objectivity. Reasoning and logic are undoubtedly fundamental to the scientific endeavour, but in reading Daniel Goleman’s book about emotional intelligence, I’ve learnt that emotion, and specifically the link between the emotional and rational parts of our brain, is also fundamental to many things that are important to science and to leadership. Our ability to make well considered decisions, learn effectively, and develop creative insights and all rely on some degree on the “feeling” part of our brains. Self-motivation, a fundamental trait in both leaders and scientists, is also driven by emotion. So while we think of science as a fundamentally rational pursuit, emotion plays a core role in our ability to be good environmental scientists, and environmental leaders.

Emotional responses are normal

Having an emotional response to a situation, especially if it is surprising, or relates to something we care about, is completely normal. Emotional responses are part of our body’s protection mechanism, and so stressful, high energy situations will make us more likely to experience emotional responses. In science, and in leadership, people are motivated to work long hours, take on ambitious projects and put themselves in stressful situations because they care about what they do. Indeed, when you speak to great leaders, and great scientists their passion is evident. This high level of personal investment means that as well as “positive” emotions like enthusiasm, people will also experience, and sometimes show, negative emotions about their work.

I recently came across this post “There is crying in science, that’s ok” that encourages scientists to be more accepting of displays of emotion the workplace. What was telling about this post was the number of positive comments this post received – most commenters were amazed at how many others had also cried at work at some point during their careers (both men and women). This response also reflected some recent conversations we’ve had within the leadership group. Becoming aware of how others perceive us, and recognising that this can be very different from how we perceive ourselves, has been an important part of the self-leadership journey for many of us this year. Being your own worst critic is helpful for maintaining high standards in your work, but it’s important to take a step back every now and again and look at how far you’ve come.

Recently, Joern Fischer highlighted in a blog post, that most scientists and leaders are not people you would describe as emotionally sensitive people. However, sensitive people are often inclined to be deep thinkers, and notice subtleties in their environments – both traits that are likely to be highly beneficial in tackling the complex problems faced in environmental science. Becoming more inclusive of sensitive personality types might therefore benefit not just the individuals themselves, but environmental science as a discipline.

It’s not the feeling, but the response that matters

In my readings about emotional intelligence, I’ve learnt that it’s not the emotion itself, but how we respond to the emotion that is important. Interestingly, responding to emotion and stress was part of the mental strength training the ACT ultimate team did as part of our nationals campaign this year. In this training, we used the model of event + response = outcome. This model emphasises that events are often out of our control, but by focussing our energies on how we respond, we can often still control the outcome. When a situation triggers an emotional or stress response (which is the natural first response – it takes our rational brain a second to catch up), our ability to prevent the emotional brain from dominating, and make space for our rational brain to work on a considered response, is essential to achieving the outcome we want.

The great thing is, this is an ability that can be learnt. Both through mental strength training for ultimate, and my own reading, I’ve come across a wealth of tools that can be used to help improve our ability to calm our emotional brain and make space for our rational one. These are tools that can be practiced, and then implemented in pressure moments (whether that be the last point in a grand final, or giving a public seminar). Two strategies that I found helped me focus during the nationals campaign were abdominal breathing, and body scanning. For anyone interested in these, or other tools, The Smiling Mind website is a great place to start.



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