Perspectives: Leadership and the 'emotional rollercoaster'

Written by
Dr Rebecca Newton, Senior Visiting Fellow, London School of Economics’ Department of Management

Published
16 Jun 2020

16 Jun 2020 • by Dr Rebecca Newton, Senior Visiting Fellow, London School of Economics’ Department of Management

Does leading through a crisis require emotional intelligence? Dr Rebecca Newton examines the bearing EQ has on the individual, and on business as a whole.

In this season of great uncertainty, change and challenge, I find that people are wanting authenticity, understanding and empathy from their leaders - now more than ever. Given this need, is emotional intelligence (EQ) the one thing leaders should be focusing on?

Authors and researchers such as Daniel Goleman have argued powerfully that emotional intelligence is fundamental for leadership. Despite many studies suggesting the importance of emotional intelligence, other studies have failed to find a relationship between EQ and business results.

It starts with you

The term emotional intelligence was coined in the 1990s by John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, and can be defined as, “the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.” EQ isn’t just about being able to read and understand others’ emotions and respond accordingly; foundational elements are self-awareness and self-regulation: it starts with me.

In a coaching session recently, one leader shared with me how, in this season, she didn’t feel able to anticipate her emotions. Tessa is a respected and influential leader who runs a sizeable department in a large bank, has huge responsibilities and pressures right now, and is working hard and driving change. She described how she feels “on an emotional roller-coaster,” oscillating between energetic, optimistic, driven on some days, to angry and short-tempered on others, and to despairing or lethargic on others. 

This is expected in uncertain and difficult times. If this resonates with you, it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone in this, and it’s vital to seek advice from your health practitioner if you feel you can’t cope. For leaders, it can feel like a daily balancing act – on one hand, knowing the importance of authenticity and vulnerability and not pretending to be a superhero, but on the other hand, knowing it’s their job to motivate and inspire their people. Should a leader bring “fake” energy and positivity when they’re not really feeling it? How can a leader be themselves, be genuine while on the emotional rollercoaster with everyone else?

Authenticity that aligns with your values

People are craving authenticity. This is about being aware of what you think, feel and believe, and acting in a way that reflect your values. As a leader, be clear about the impact you want to have on others each day; what matters to you. Ask, “what kind of leader do I want to be today?” This guides your behaviour and enables you to be true to yourself as a leader, whilst not denying the emotions you feel. Yes, you might feel grumpy and “over it all” but it’s not authentic to outwork those emotions: being authentic means behaving in a way that aligns with your values.

Having said that, I think people are not looking for perfection in their leaders; they’re looking for integrity. So, having a bad day is okay and worth sharing. What we need to avoid is failure to self-regulate and taking that bad day out on people in a way that isn’t aligned with your values. 

Self-awareness and self-regulation require reflection. Amidst the busyness many leaders are experiencing right now, it’s difficult to find time to think about anything other than just what’s on the to-do list. But just 10 minutes at the end of the day helps - reflect on how you feel, how you showed up, what you’re finding positive, what has challenged you, and what you might like to do differently tomorrow. This reflection not only fuels self-awareness but research suggests it increases performance and your own positive well-being.

Reflection fuels self-awareness

A Dutch study of over seven-thousand people found a positive relationship between reflectivity and happiness, with reflectivity tending to reduce self-centeredness, which in turn leads to a deeper understanding of one’s own motives and behaviour and others. Other studies have suggested that authenticity is one of the strongest predictors of well-being.

As a leader, don’t be discouraged if you feel you’re on an emotional rollercoaster – you’re not alone. Choose to reflect on your own emotions and the impact they have on your performance and your relationships. Being emotionally intelligent isn’t about perfectly controlling your emotions and it’s certainly not about controlling others.

People don’t need leaders who ignore their own or others’ emotions. They are looking for leaders who are self-aware, self-regulating and who make time to find out how others are feeling and the impact on their work and relationships too. The most impactful leaders in this difficult season aren’t emotionless robots. They are people who engage with their own and others’ emotions to lead with integrity, vulnerability and authenticity.

 

Dr Rebecca Newton is an Organisational Psychologist, Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics’ Department of Management, CEO of coaching and consulting firm, CoachAdviser, and the author of Authentic Gravitas: Who Stands Out and Why. 
 

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