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.