Cultivating Leadership Emotional Fitness

How to boost the leadership personality immune system

Emotional Fitness is the Key to Leadership Fitness

Effective leaders are expected to have a range of competencies from strategy to marketing to managing change and people. These qualities are sufficiently rare in a single package (not to mention even rarer talents such as vision and innovation), that according to Forbes, a $367 billion industry has evolved worldwide in Leadership Development.

Among the critical functions of leadership, one aspect has pushed its way to the front. This is the bevy of qualities involved in the catch phrase “people skills.” It includes authenticity, effective communication skills, the ability to build trust, empathy and respect of others, self-awareness, the ability to learn and grow, and to negotiate and influence constructively. The value of a leader with highly honed social and emotional skills is now rarely in dispute. Under a recent Google search of “leadership skills,” not one item was mentioned in the first 10 lists of “Leadership Skills” that did not pertain to emotional or social intelligence. In the 2020 World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report, 4 of 10 competencies named as vital qualities of all employees of the future involved “self-management” skills including resilience, stress tolerance, flexibility and active learning. This list grows to 8 out of 10 competencies if you include cognitive-based skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving. Cognitive neuroscience research has demonstrated that the best results in creativity and innovation, problem-solving and decision-making arise out of the robust combination of emotional and intellectual functioning. (The last 2 out of 10 competencies are skills related to the use of technology.)

Human Resource professionals and most effective organizations have already known for some time that an engaged workforce, positive morale and motivation, a sense of meaningful contribution and people feeling respected makes the difference between a successful company and a failed one. There is nothing like the company driven to failure and underperformance driven by a toxic company culture or leadership to prove the point.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

Psychological and Emotional Quotient is Not All or Nothing

Nor is the general trend of the Leadership Development industry wholly embraced by the individual leaders and managers encompassed by it. Many are leery of falling on the wrong side of the balancing act of being “developed” for leadership skills versus needing psychological services. As a result there is a euphemistic, upbeat orientation to many coaching engagements which seek to emphasize the developmental side of executive coaching at the cost of an authentic, clear-eyed acknowledgement that any given individual’s employability, not to mention leadership quality, would improve with psychological development, not just “skill” development.

That is because of the false, cultural dichotomy between psychological health and psychological dysfunction. In my experience most traditional cultures and, for that matter, many modern ones, perpetuate a black-or-white view of mental, emotional, and personality health. You are either basically fine; or you are crazy and possibly irreversibly defective. I have had as clients Ph.D. scientists, M.D.s, innovators, futurists, highly educated and modern individuals of every ethnic background either openly or implicitly espouse this view. It’s something that was embedded into their thinking in childhood and had never been challenged.

A Tree Grows Somewhere: Or Every Leader is a Work in Progress

I could use as an analogy, the tree. We see everywhere around us trees. We don’t really think that much about them but we do mostly enjoy them: we enjoy the shade and beauty they provide, the variety of foliage; they provide various beneficial properties, from wood to medicinal substances to textiles. But taken as individuals, any single given tree has a developmental history that is a part of its tree-ness. Perhaps it is has had to grow between and around some buildings or fences, and has shaped itself accordingly. Or on a highway meridian, and struggled with toxins. Some, through no fault of its own, have battled fungi and pests; while others have flourished magnificently over centuries, undisturbed, in an ideal spot for its particular tree species.

Just like people, most living trees exist somewhere between thriving and coping. Where they exist in that spectrum is also not a fixed, permanent condition, for which the tree should be congratulated or despised. A magnificent blue oak on a California foothill for instance, can be admired for weathering seasons of drought and rain. However, a strong windstorm following a severe drought may break half of its branches and it becomes a coper instead of a thriver. Or a brave tree that somehow cracks the asphalt and climbs past the chain-link fence half-embedded in it and gives leaf cover to someone in a 3rd floor tenement may not be that good-looking; nor the healthiest, strongest tree, but it is still functioning very well and giving lots of value.

In the same way, every single individual’s makeup is a story and a work in progress.

Just as a tree is composed of the various tissues of bark, sap, roots, leaves and the like; human functioning is composed of the tissues of history, complex emotional and behavioral repertoires we can call personality; learned skills and interpersonal habits, cultural programming. Almost all of it is, to a greater or lesser degree, workable, changeable.

If industry is just catching up Low emotional fitness of a leader can spell into a suboptimal emotional climate for the rest of an organization.

Leaders are Human, Too

A strong leader has a wide perimeter of impact, both within their organization and with external stakeholders. A leader who is maladapted to their position and influence due to their social or emotional makeup; due to life stressors, or any other reason, has outsize impact on the functioning and emotional climate of the rest of the company they lead.

After all, leaders are human like everyone else. As such, they suffer the same vulnerabilities of illness and aging, the temperaments they were born with, and the psychosocial responses that shaped them, for good or ill. It should not be a matter of great shock when a leader runs into a limit to their ability to cope with the stresses and challenges of their position. Nor can they be expected to be devoid of the idiosyncrasies of their own personality. Sometimes their style fits well with the needs of their organization, and sometimes it won’t. The important thing is not to not have emotional or psychological problems. As a psychologist, I can blithely and truthfully say that every single person has “problems” of one sort or another, at some point or at another – just like the tree may have both fat and skinny rings in its trunk, or all sorts of branches shaped in interesting ways. What matters is that the vagaries of personality are viewed as opportunities for learning and growth, and awareness and openness seen as the precondition of that process.

The neural sciences have been validating for 25 years the value and importance of emotional and personality development; that it is indeed a life-long work-in-progress; and that emotional functioning and intellectual ability are tightly knit. Emotional functioning is not a regrettable byproduct of an otherwise rational actor, but actually the key to cognitive, problem-solving, analytic, decision-making and social functioning of the individual and group.

What are some examples of leadership emotional fitness?

Just about any behavior, mental state, emotion, or social habit can trend toward fitness and health; or be maladaptive and detrimental. First, cultural, social, and organizational context and fit determine if something is good or bad. Being outspoken about one’s contributions and promoting one’s abilities is considered strong in one culture and would be disdained in another one. Also, most qualities have extremes on both sides, neither of which are desirable. You can be extremely outgoing to the point of being unproductive; or extremely introverted to the point of being unable to function socially. The point is, it’s a mistake to think that anyone can designate a specific behavior or mental state to be ideal or its opposite. The best we can do is to be thoughtful about the effect something has.

How would you evaluate your own emotional fitness? Are there areas that you think you could alter to greater benefit; something you could do more of, or less of? Below are examples of behaviors or mind states of leaders I have worked with, followed by its counterpoint, the more balanced or emotionally intelligent possibility.


Lacking presence with the people around you. Not listening, looking at your phone or watch; making light of scheduled appointments. VS. Being present with the people around you by limiting distractions, being interested and listening.


Taking actions to prove yourself or prove a point out of insecurity. Being overly defensive or bombastic in an effort to hide your lack of self-confidence. Taking risks or trying to overachieve as a form of bravado. Overly self-critical or too attentive to errors or failed projects. VS. Actions driven by a larger or deeper agenda than an effort to avoid self-doubt. Not being easily deterred by failures and obstacles, not out of stubbornness but because of conviction in what you believe in. Ability to support others through authentic belief in yourself and them.


Fear of the spotlight and avoiding visibility for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, or not showing up the right way. VS. Showing up to contain the anxiety or needs for support of the people you are leading; understanding that it is part of your role to contain tension, anxiety or other strong group emotions and bring the group together


Being arrogant or self-centered; believing your role entitles you to power and attention. Overtalking people or dismissing the view of others, or dominating conversations. VS. Genuine humility and respect for the contributions of others. Being interested in them and being able to see or bring out the value other people bring. Ability to listen and engage in a back and forth that signals respect and mutuality leading to trust.

How can my I work on my deficits in a safe way?

  1. Don’t think of them as deficits. By viewing them as deficits you pathologize the specific mind state or behavior, and you pathologize yourself. It is unhelpful. It also causes an artificial threshold of “problems” versus normal human phenomena. Something should not have to rise to the level of an HR intervention to be something you would benefit by being made aware of. Rather, think of your apparently unfit or problematic behavior as something as normal as blemishes on a person’s face, like freckles. In ancient times (as ancient as the 19th century), women used makeup with lead in it to give the appearance of a flawless, smooth complexion. However, this toxic heavy metal applied to the face would damage the skin, so more and more lead makeup would have to be applied to cover up the proliferating lesions. Even though today, plenty of people still wear facial makeup, in many cultures, facial blemishes or uneven skin tones aren’t considered so disgusting that they have to be covered up at any cost. In the same way, view your personal attributes as being a part of you that you can accept AND work with.
  2. Be interested in your blind spots. Just as automobiles have blind spots, so do people. We cannot see what we do not know is there to see. I once had a manager whose personal and national cultural style it was to be more blunt than Americans tend to be. He gave me some negative feedback about an expression my face wore not infrequently. When I looked in the mirror to puzzle out what he might have meant, I noticed that when I was thinking hard, my brows would furrow in such concentration that I looked positively ill-tempered. What I saw on my face in the mirror was different than what I was feeling inside. Imagine if we all lived in a world without mirrors, both the glass kind and the interpersonal kind. Everyone knows what “I” look like, except “I, myself.” Thus it can be a gift to receive a reflection of yourself when it can point you in the right direction of growth. I hadn’t known that my face was reflecting an expression that misrepresented my internal feelings. My face had developed a habit that I was unaware of, and which did not serve my social interests.
  3. Welcome feedback and offer it too. The ability to accept feedback with grace and openness requires no small set of emotional and psychological skills. If is of course incumbent on you, when you offer, and incumbent on others, when they offer, to express feedback in a way that is respectful, thoughtful, and honest. Assuming that, it isn’t always easy to hear it, depending on a variety of situational and personal factors. Be aware of the following pitfalls in receiving and giving feedback:
    1. Be aware of feeling and acting defensive. Being argumentative, giving rebuttals, demanding specifics are ways in which you may alert yourself that you are not feeling open to the feedback. Of course, it could be because the content is either not true, not relevant, helpful, etc., but all of that can be determined after you have heard the feedback out. If you are feeling strongly defensive, best to postpone the conversation until you’ve had more time to prepare for the conversation.
    2. Being glib or superficial in your reception of feedback. Making an appearance of taking it in, but later demonstrating by your continued actions that the feedback had no impact and was not received by you.
    3. Be as thoughtful, sensitive, and relevant in the feedback you offer as the feedback you’d want. Not thinking through your comments or being too glib or harsh can backfire. Honest feedback goes a long way when you give the impression of really having thought about what you want to say, and are offering it in the spirit of helping.

Do I need coaching or do I need therapy?

Even asking such a question shows that you’re open to either, which is great news. Why? Because both coaching and therapy are learning processes, and it signals your interest in learning versus stagnating. As mentioned earlier, any behavior can be considered “normal” and ordinary; and the same behavior can overreach into the realm of deleterious. A lot is in the context.

That said, this article is written with an eye to helping people feel unafraid to acknowledge the real world of complex mental and psychological states and personalities. Real people occupy jobs, and all are imperfect.

Some issues that might indicate psychotherapy may either augment or substitute coaching:

• Significant depression, axty, depression, anger, suspiciousness or black and white thinking
• Boredom, ennui, disengaged
• Perfectionistic and overly critical of self or others
• Substance dependence or other behaviors interfering with work
• Extreme stress or inability to cope with demands of job
• Negative self-talk, low confidence, feeling inadequate
• Short-term reward seeking, impulsive, distractible, lack of focus

In my experience, many of the clients I have seen in coaching have sometimes or even persistently experienced some of the states in the list above, but continue to function effectively in their jobs. However, getting help could reduce the amount of time spent in what psychologists would call painful symptoms; and release the energy for other, more satisfying purposes.

The Hurt Leader: Toxic behaviors of leadership

When people of influence are hurt or hurting, the effect is likely to be toxic to the people around them, never mind their business interests. However, companies still retain people who manifest these problems because they are viewed as being valuable to the company in other ways. These problems are hard to coach, unless there is a combination of strong personal motivation to change, strong commitment and leverage from the institution, family support, and the augmentation of other change processes, such as psychotherapy.

The hurt leader may:

• Engage in inappropriate or harmful behavior, e.g. harassment,
• humiliating others. blaming others. making people feel used or
• Have poor boundaries, including poor ethical boundaries
• Have little empathy for the feelings of others
• Look for scapegoats and view the self as victim