August 26, 2014

Market Analysis

You Need to be an Emotionally Aware Leader

This article was originally published on

As we enter a new era for IT organizations, our next generation of leaders will have to embrace the idea of emotionally aware leadership.

Emotionally aware leader

“Ugh, some men can be such jerks. Why can’t I find a guy who is emotionally available and will open up sometimes?”

I was having dinner with a female friend who had just finished a somewhat messy divorce and was returning to the dating scene. And it wasn’t too pretty. Our conversation conjured up images of the prototypical man: strong, stoic, unemotional. And while this perception certainly isn’t true of all men, we all know plenty of men who fit this bill perfectly.

Unfortunately, this idea of being unemotional as being synonymous with strength has also permeated our business cultures around the world. This makes sense because, let’s face it, our business cultures were historically created by men. So within the workplace, we have this idea that there is no place for being emotional and that it is better to demonstrate strength and assuredness than anything that might suggest weakness. As a result, you might describe most of our corporate cultures as emotionally unavailable.  

The problem, of course, is that this is just plain wrong.

The Truth About Our Brains 

As much as we’d like to believe that we humans are primarily rational beings, the hard truth is that the vast majority of our decisions and actions are driven by emotion. In his book Predictably IrrationalDaniel Ariely gives example after example of how seemingly rational humans make completely irrational decisions. And there’s a very good reason for this: it’s how we’re wired.

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Recent neuroscience research has shed lots of light on how our brain works and operates. The emotional side of our brain developed first and is, in fact, the much more powerful part of our neurological makeup. The rational brain was the last to develop and while it is what sets us apart, it is also powerless when our emotional instincts kick-in. In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Dan and Chip Heath describe it this way:

“the…tension is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.”

While most of us seem to understand the raw power of emotion, we also seem to believe (incorrectly) that we can overpower emotion with rational thought. And so we ignore and even deny the power of emotion in our everyday business thinking and interactions, but that just isn’t how it really works.

The Emotional Leader

If I were to tell you that your new boss is an “emotional leader,” you would immediately think that he or she is unstable, unpredictable, wishy-washy and maybe even unable to make a decision. We prefer to think of our leaders as the strong, stoic and unemotional type—the kind of “manly” leader typified in movies. But if we really think about it, our greatest leaders have actually been quite emotive. They inspire us. They make us feel that they care about us. Yes, they demonstrate strength through their vision and decision-making abilities, but it is because we believe in them—which is an emotional response—that we see them as great leaders.  

As we enter this new era for IT organizations, our next generation of leaders will have to embrace this idea of emotionally aware leadership. While I believe that true leaders have always connected with the emotional sides of our brains, the stakes have increased for IT leaders who are trying to navigate this new era.  

This is the sixth and final article in a series called “What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man” In it, I’ve been exploring the skills, traits and characteristics that will be required of our next generation of leaders during this period of transition and transformation. A key element of this transition is that it will be a time of creative destruction that will stir up a significant amount of emotion and angst as ideas and the conflicting cultures of the past and the future clash. The Digital Renaissance Men and Women of our time will need to be unafraid to embrace this creative destruction, but must also be emotionally aware enough to help us navigate through it. Trying to be stoic and ignoring the highly emotional responses created by this time of transition will be a recipe for chaos.

The Three Signs of Emotional Awareness 

For my friend looking for a good man, “emotional availability” meant the willingness to be open and to embrace their emotional being. Fundamentally, it’s about a willingness to be vulnerable. When I talk about the need for Digital Renaissance Men and Women to be emotionally aware, I mean essentially the same thing. To be a leader in this time means that you must be aware of and sensitive to the degree of vulnerability that will exist as our world churns. That can be hard to do when everything is changing so fast and we ourselves are under such a significant amount of pressure to adapt, but it will be these emotionally aware leaders that will be most successful at guiding their teams through the disruption.

But it will also require balance. You must ensure that you are sufficiently vulnerable and open to the emotional needs of your team, but not become the kind of touchy, feel-good leader that gets nothing done. There are three clear signs that can help you strike the right balance.

Talk, Not Gossip

I remember the time when Mary stepped into my office. (The real name of “Mary” and other people mentioned in this article have been changed, along with other identifying details.) I was a young manager, and we were going through a time of transition and she had some concerns about her role. We had a good chat and I actually learned quite a bit about Mary that I hadn’t known before, such as her aspirations, her goals, her fears. As she got up to leave my office, she looked at me and said how nice it was that she could have an honest and open conversation with me. As a young manager, it was one of my prouder moments.

A key sign that you are an emotionally aware leader is that your team wants to talk to you. Not that they are willing to talk, if you ask them. But that they seek you out. The reason why they seek you out is also an important indicator. If they seek you out for advice and counsel much more than for direction and permission, you’re on the right track. If they feel comfortable asking for your help in achieving their goals, it’s a clear sign that they feel comfortable letting their guard down with you.

If instead your team holds their goals, dreams and aspirations too close to the vest, you probably have some work to do. On the other hand, if your team is so comfortable with you that they feel they can openly gossip about anything and everything with you, you’ve probably gone too far. In the end, being a leader is sort of like being a parent. Your job isn’t to be their friend, but you must create an open and mutually vulnerable relationship to be effective.

Reality, Not False Optimism

I am pretty much a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. I speak my mind and call it like I see it. But even I was no match for Steve, a CIO at a large health-care organization that I did some work with for a time. It just didn’t matter what I told him. If it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, it was going to be ignored (at best) or ridiculed (at worst). So, I eventually stopped telling him the truth and just told him what he wanted to hear. It was just too much work and too much risk to give Steve the dose of reality that he needed.

Steve may be an extreme example, but it is very easy for leaders to create an environment in which their team tells them what they want to hear. In fact, I’d say that it happens to most leaders at one point or another. Steve was not emotionally aware. He didn’t want to hear the truth and he wasn’t open to what any of us thought. He was the leader and he was going to lead his way. Our job was to tell him how great that way was, regardless of what we actually thought.

On the other hand, if your team is ready and willing to give you a much-needed dose of reality when you need it, that’s a great sign that you’re an emotionally aware leader. If they are comfortable coming to you, respectfully and without being a “we’ve always done it this way” naysayer, then you’re on the right track. They’re telling you that they believe that you see them as part of the team and that they are valued for their thoughts and opinions as much as for their work. Just watch out for the warning sign that you’ve gone too far. If they begin to believe that they now have a right to override your decisions or believe that you cannot make a decision without their consensus, you will know that you’ve crossed the line.

Trust and Respect, Not Resignation

“I just want you know something,” Stan said as he walked into my office. “I don’t agree with this direction. You know that. But I know we’ve talked about it and you heard me out, so I just want to make sure you know that I respect your decision and I’m with you.”

Stan and I had been discussing whether we were going to continue to maintain a stock of PCs for delivery to our customers. I had made a decision and had just finished announcing it to the team, many of whom worked for Stan. I knew the decision would affect many of them, and Stan was trying to protect them. I also knew that he was disappointed that he hadn’t been able to persuade me to adopt his position. So this brief conversation was important to me because it told me that Stan respected me and had enough trust in me to stand by me even when he didn’t get what he wanted.

When your team doesn’t trust and respect you, they may accept your decisions, but they will do so with resignation. They will feel that they simply have no choice and no control and so they will simply go along to get along. And slowly, over time, they will disengage to the point where they are just going through the motions.

When your team communicates and demonstrates their trust in you—especially when they don’t agree with you—it will be a clear sign that you’re striking the right balance. The key is that you will not have blind obedience. Instead, your team will be comfortable enough to tell you to your face that they do not agree with your decision, but that they will stand by you. That kind of trust and respect is only born out of a belief that you have their interests and the best interests of the organization at heart. It comes from a belief that they’ve been heard and that they are respected. If instead you’re getting blind obedience, you are either running a cult or your team has just resigned themselves to their fate.

On the surface, it may feel that being an emotionally aware leader is the antithesis of what the business world says it wants in our leaders. But the truth is that being emotionally aware, available and vulnerable actually requires a tremendous amount of strength. You must believe enough in yourself that you are willing to be questioned by your team. You must be confident enough in your decisions to have them challenged. You must be brave enough to hear about your own shortcomings. This type of leadership, in fact, requires so much strength and character that many leaders don’t possess it.

As we enter this new era of IT, we need a new breed of leaders. We need modern-day Digital Renaissance Men and Women to step forward and lead us through this disruptive and tumultuous time. We need you to have a true heart for service. We need you to be in constant state of learning. We need you to be willing to question everything. We need you to be a great connector of ideas, cultures and people. And we need you to be emotionally aware and available so that you can expertly lead your team in times of fear and great change.

It’s a lot to ask of you. But it’s also a tremendous opportunity to have an impact and to participate in one of the greatest times in our industry.

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a six-part article series titled “What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man.” To read the fifth installment, “Great IT Leaders Must Be Great Connectors,” click here.


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