Personal & Executive Coach

Consulting Psychologist & Psychoanalyst

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, and 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 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 following: 1. the value and importance of emotional and personality development; 2. That such development is a life-long work-in-progress; and 3. 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.  A lot of it has to do with context. Being outspoken about one’s contributions and promoting one’s abilities is considered a sign of confidence and strength in some national cultures; while it would signify an embarrassing immaturity in others, at the same time connoting that one is actually weaker than one represents oneself to be.  Therefore “emotional fitness” is not necessarily defined by specific “positive” characteristics – as much as the adaptability of one’s personality and its characteristics in its social, organizational, and cultural context.

However I do not mean to imply that social and emotional fitness depend its definition on how well one gets along with the collective – as much as to suggest that I want to avoid  simplifying the concept into an imagined tool by which to measure what is fluid and complex. Moreover, 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.

Notice that these two example characteristics: outgoing/introverted – are characteristics of how one relates to others and/or self.

I would therefore define emotional fitness as a resilient dynamic between the self and the community, defined as anyone you have meaningful relationships or interactions with.  It isn’t enough to have superb relationships with others (or the appearance of them), if you are not well within yourself.  This would imply a kind of false self, or a schism in the personality.  Nor is it good to feel wonderful within your own subjectivity and consciousness – how you feel inside and about yourself – only to be despised by everyone else.

Here are some characteristics that come to mind when I think about emotional and social fitness, described in terms of example behaviors.


Where the trajectory of emotions, energy, motivation and effort returns, sooner or later, to a generally positive and optimistic direction, despite serious obstacles.Where serious obstacles deplete and wound the whole body (meaning their physical, mental, emotional, social and functioning health) of the individual faster than they can recover from it.


Feeling comfortable, at ease, and at peace with yourself to the extent that you can well afford to turn your energy and interest  on the others who are with you in the present time.Being distracted by internal or external problems such that you get “lost” in them.  Difficult to focus attention on the situation and reality at hand.  This includes problems from the past – so you are not really “present.”

Collaboration / Respect

I put these two together because they are so interdependent.  It is hard to get people to want to work or team up with you even on the simplest thing, if you don’t feel or show respect to them.  When one party feels superior or tries to lord it over the other, collaboration and relationship soon break down.The ability to see the feelings, opinions, style of others as having merit on their own account.  Not viewing it as something conferred to them by you or some criteria, but inherent to them.  Therefore, treating someone respectively implies being interested in their perspective,  and appreciative of  contributions, even if different than yours.

Confidence / Stability

Having a relatively smooth and positive self-experience that is not easily turned over by critique or bad outcomes, but which is at the same time open to input, feedback and critique and interested in self-improvement.Being overly dependent on outside feedback to feel good about oneself.  Because of this, tending to be defensive or overly sensitive, insecure, self-critical, and either trying too hard, or afraid of taking risks.

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

  1. Don’t think of them as deficits. Viewing “imperfections” as deficits leads to pathologizing certain traits — or yourself as a whole.  “Problems” or “deficits” are actually a part of being normally human, like facial blemishes, such as freckles or lines.  In ancient times (even as recent 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. Although many people still wear facial makeup, in many cultures uneven skin tones or facial blemishes are not viewed as something better disguised. In the same way, wherever you are in your journey of personal growth, you can help yourself greatly by forgoing judgment and self-evaluation, in favor of interest in growth as a process.

  2. Be interested in your blind spots. Just as automobiles have blind spots, so do people. We cannot see what we do not know to look for. I once sat on a conference panel where the moderator was a colleague and friend, as well as from a country where blunt communication was often the norm.  He suggested that, for the panel, I should make an effort to stop frowning so much.  When I looked in a mirror to puzzle out what he might have been referring to, I noticed that indeed, when I became thoughtful (which I often am), my brow would furrow with concentration in a way that indeed gave my face an unfriendly expression.

    What I saw in the mirror was different from what I was feeling inside.

    Imagine a world without mirrors, both the glass kind and the interpersonal kind. Each person knows what their “I” looks like – or so they believe. In reality, the “I” is often the last person to see what is obvious to everyone else.

  1. Therefore it can be seen that feedback from others—or when we offer feedback for the right reasons in the right way – can be an exchange of gifts. Giving and receiving helpful feedback is a high art requiring no mean set of skills.  How one responds to feedback can be conditioned by early relationships.  If one has been in the habit of being criticized, evaluated or attacked, it would be very difficult not to experience feedback defensively.This can take the form of being argumentative, giving rebuttals, or anything driven by heated defensiveness. 

    Alternatively some people protect themselves by being glib or superficial in their reception of feedback.

  2. One way to improve your capacity to receive feedback is to work on giving good feedback yourself.  Working on being thoughtful and deliberate, on being respectful, and willing to back off if your prepared feedback does not seem to be wanted – will help you recognize good feedback when you are on the other end of it.

    A Buddhist teacher once described 4 qualities, not only of feedback, but of communication in general:

    • Truthful
    • Kind
    • Necessary
    • Understated

The Hurt Leader

An article about leadership emotional fitness could not be complete without acknowledging the fact that some leaders are not only – not entirely emotionally fit – but downright harmful.

I use the word “hurt” in The Hurt Leader both as a noun as an adjective.  Some leaders deliver hurt.  Many leaders are also hurt – emotionally injured in ways that compromise their own functioning and undermine that of others.

The Hurt Leader: Toxic behaviors of leadership

When people of influence are hurt or hurting, the effect can be toxic to the people around them, never mind to the goals of the organization they lead. Yet for a variety of reasons, such leaders are still appointed because they are seen as valuable in other ways.  The hurt leader may:

  • Engage in inappropriate or harmful behavior, e.g. harassment or exploitations
  • Humiliate or blame others
  • Make people feel used or manipulated
  • Have poor boundaries, including poor ethical boundaries
  • Have little empathy or consideration for the feeling of others
  • Look for scapegoats or view the self as victim

Can a Hurt Leader Be Coached to Change?

People exhibiting these behaviors can be hard to coach – among other reasons – because not infrequently they don’t view themselves as needing coaching.  Seeing that there is a case for change is a hopeful sign. More often than not a combination of psychotherapy and coaching together could be helpful.

In other words, the leader’s personal motivation to change or grow is the most important factor as to whether they are likely to do so, or not. Other factors are also necessary, such as the alignment of the leader’s environment – such as their organization and governance bodies, the support of family and friends, and the alignment of goals and consequences.