If Emotional Leadership Isn’t an Oxymoron

A week ago today a 20-year old man was found dead in a fraternity on campus.  I felt compelled to touch on it in my leadership class. All sixty of my students write papers weekly that reflect their desire to lead and grow as leaders.  Here was a chance.


How, I wondered out loud, can you deal with Israel and Palestine, immigration, sexual assault, global climate change, taxes, or whether to put up a stop sign on the corner — without dealing with emotions? Emotions rule, no matter how detached and analytic we may appear. Then I asked, “how do you [leaders] feel about the news from the fraternity over the weekend?”

It grew VERY HEAVY in that room. There was a lot of sadness rumbling. Confusion was jagging. Fear reverberated. Determination and hope blipped.

I asked them not to turn away.  Too often leaders point us away from our painful emotion.  I think it’s fairly well accepted — well beyond my progressive friends — that President Bush did this with the Iraq war, pointing the desperation, sadness, and vulnerability we felt away from the tough emotional and adaptive challenges we face in a globally-connected and terror-plagued world (and into a war in the wrong place). Michael Moore mocked Bush for being stunned when he was interrupted from reading children a story, to be told by an aide about the planes at the WTC on 911. But I’d guess Bush anticipated the pain and fear of a nation. It’s easy for me to say he moved when he should have contemplated and contemplated when he should have moved. I can’t imagine the amount of pressure and emotion he conducted.

What should I have done when I could intuitively FEEL how powerfully my little circle of 60 students felt about the death of a 20-year old a few hundred feet from where we were meeting?  I’ll tell you next week.

But for now, I just want to celebrate the question. The question was posed to me by Miranda, one of the most piercing and reflective 22-year olds I have ever taught, “What is the role of a leader,” she asked during office hours, “when people are feeling the kind of deep emotions that were present in our class?”

Her question is THE question in so many situations.  For example:  for any parent who’s wanted to spank an out-of-control kid, for any boss who’s wanted to fire all their confused workers, for any teacher who’s at wits end with an acting-out student, for any worker who finds out their desperate boss is lying; what is to be done with all this emotion? And please note that the emotion pulses at BOTH ends of all four of those examples.

I open the floor to you. Next week I will share some possible avenues we might explore because — not if, as my title says — Emotional Leadership is not an oxymoron!  Hit the comment button and tell a story where you got it right leading when there was great emotion, as you

Lead with your best self!


  • What a provocative discussion and question.
    Response: There’s a time and a place for such a meeting to discern the hearts of staff and provide encouragement and guidance and trust infused with a moral compass that is mindful of the need to increase employee or student morale.
    In depth: We are spirit beings (good or bad) and we have souls (while at one time or another we may have experienced people who have caused us to question if that is true). However, to that end, yes emotions run current in our lives. There is no escape but there must be a way, when “leading”, to channel such emotions so that people experience our leadership with respect whether they agree or disagree with our emotions. I’ll be honest, I am not comfortable with emotional leadership if it leads to the absence of such critical awareness of right and wrong, who, what, where, when, and why or who are we, where are we going and how do we get there.
    I am an innovator and artist so I understand both passion and emotions and the benefit and role it plays in our lives. However, I like to channel my emotions so that I can lead with discernment and the ability to make a quality decisions. If you’ve ever been victim to emotional leadership then you may understand confusion, you understand limited growth under a particular leadership style etc… There can be benefits if emotional leadership derives confidence that becomes professional development that can’t be achieved otherwise.
    During challenging times such as (and similar to) a campus death, you reach out to your staff and let them know you understand they are hurting and look for ways to provide relief while still focusing on priorities at hand. Acknowledgement is mature leadership. If you lead long enough you’ll know and learn how to reach out to colleagues, peers, staff etc… There is a heart component to leadership. In fact you have to care about people if you feel you have something to impart and benefit their lives as a result of encountering you as a leader. Therefore, it is expected that when painful situations arise leaders help to navigate and guide. The contrary is a lesson in itself but often leaves not wanting to repeat the same example. Take a look at history and you’ll see emotional leadership at its best and worst (when in absence of a moral compass and integrity). I’ll conclude that in the latter people don’t like to talk about truth, policy, neither is there an active leadership model present; moreover so many will be in a state of confusion and the lack of effective communication will be astonishing.
    Great topic-and very apropos for this time of year.

  • If you have a situation that is on everyone’s mind, you have an open forum of people in the classroom or workplace. Instructor or manager starts the discussion out and then allows the group to share thoughts about what happened, their feelings, how they are dealing with it and any thoughts they may have on doing something about the situation, as far as doing anything to share ideas outside the classroom/workplace as a community service to avoid a repeat of the situation, or perhaps help resources if someone is in need of help, emotional or otherwise. If the event is on everyone’s mind, they are distracted from classroom work or what they should be concentrating on at work. I believe the open discussion helps a little in dealing with the situation, sort of structures the discussion, so that when the meeting is over, they may have resolved some things in their own mind that would otherwise be mentally nagging them for a time after the open discussion session would be concluded. After the discussion there is a chance other classroom or workplace progress could be made beyond what otherwise might occur had the open discussion not taken place.

  • Dan,

    First, you must validate their emotions, acknowledging they have the right to feel what they are feeling. Our faith, our feelings, and our memories are the only things we truly own. Second, a good leader demonstrates how to channel those feelings into constructive activity and a powerful source of energy. So much gets wasted as heat, when what we need is light.

    Sadness can spur introspection. Fear can motivated change. Confusion can drive a search for answers (not truth, for that can subjective). What is needed is action, not reaction. Have a plan that lets them tap their own resources — don’t take advantage of their unfocused energy in any way that will make them feel used.

  • Leaders need to be ready for these situations. It takes time and commitment for us humans to build the physical stamina, emotional self and social awareness, and cognitive skills so that when these moments happen there is a better chance to react with integrity. It takes time for us to have built the relationships that help us know what our community needs.

    Leaders can’t wait until these things happen to hope they’ll respond at their best or somewhere near their best.

    Sometimes what’s needed, for the group and the individual leader, is quiet. Sometimes it’s words.

    The investment is cumulative. Reading postings like yours, engaging in conversations like the ones you have with your students, taking care of ourselves and our communities, all help us prepare for the small and large emotional situations of life.

    Thanks, as always, Dan.

  • I just had a discussion with an RN I know about when and to what extent, does emotion enhance communication and when does it block communication? Then I heard an NPR story about how the best teachers are performers (who presumably emote enthusiasm and curiosity and other emotions, I guess). Think of some outstanding leaders–Churchill, JFK, Billy Graham, etc. Many of them weren’t the least shy about exuding pure, strong emotions. The key factor seems to be whether the emotion resonates with the listeners or followers or something. We see films of Hitler today and wonder how anyone could be swept up into that little ranting man’s rhetoric. Why? Because we don’t understand just how frustrated and angry the German people were with the reprisals forced on them after the Great War! His garbage resonated with them. Can’t blame the victors so blame some folks they could consider “one-down” from them. Yuk! Motivational speakers often exude emotion. Maybe an effective leader is someone who can discern the emotions of others, and articulate them… and maybe put a positive spin on them, a solution, a possible way out of negative emotions…

  • I believe Leaders must do both. Emotions drive most issues. However in order to improve or adequately address the situation, the hard cold facts must be there. The solution must not deteriorate the situation or you might as well be a babbling idiot…and we have too many of them seeking re-election 24-7-365.
    Get your facts that include emotion, since it is a fact and make a decision that fixes or improves the cold hard facts and addresses emotion. Put the macho away and seek input from softies and hard heads

    Yes it gets hot…43 yrs marriage, 7 kids, 8 grandkids later it gets hot…41 years in manufacturing, etc…it gets hot.

  • I like the comments above, and look forward to the comments of next week. The big problem with emotions is that people do not want to hear about bad things, even bad things that must be dealt with.

  • Mr. Mulher,

    I asked my team to read and provide feedback on your article on Emotional Leadership and I would like to share with you some of their perspectives. Thanks!

    “My thoughts on this:

    Emotions are part of who we are. Learning how to manage our own emotions and control our responses is the key.

    In the case of an event, to not acknowledge that we are impacted could be denial. What is necessary, is learning how to get through an event while still functioning. There are events that we expect each other’s to pull back, like in the case of funerals. Are we physically unable to work? Probably not, we are very likely mobile. The fact is that we and those around us may be impacted emotionally by a situation and it is real and legitimate. There is a time to grieve and pause & there is a time to push on.

    We ALWAYS have an emotional reaction, it’s just that we don’t always let it be known. When you are a leader, you have a different responsibility, whether you lead your family, cub-scouts, or a work team. My reaction to an event depends on those on who I am responsible to lead. After reading the emotional temperature of my family, friends, team, etc and understanding where the pack is, that determines how I will react and what I will do. If most are paralyzed, extending compassion, listening, and comforting is what is needed. Frankly, sometimes we as people just need time to process things. Understanding this and helping each other builds camaraderie, bonds, and trust. Reacting without emotion could be perceived as being callous, creating distrust and hinders relationships.

    Whether it’s your wife or your bowling buddy, as leaders, we are responsible to get everyone moving again and back on track. By responding appropriately to the first emotion and managing our response in light of those around us, we can help others through the event. Like it or not, we do not often have the luxury to indulge in a respite ourselves. We need to find the path out, help each other get on it in an appropriate way, and get going.

    It is my contention that once I have taken care of others, then I can take care of myself.”

    “My response to this particular situation:

    Think before you act; calm/cool heads always prevail

    1. Engage the team as soon as possible over the significant event
    a. It shows you care
    b. Tend to those in need
    c. Rally – focus on the strategic goal (in this case talk about every student’s potential to achieve…..)
    d. Figure out where/when/why things broke down – if you don’t address while fresh in folk’s minds, they will forget…..
    2. Set direction
    a. Tell them what you’ve learned, what you’re going to change and follow through”

    Thank again,


  • I have read your article a couple of times. You asked for a story where we got it right. I am not sure I have ever done it “right” – but I keep trying. However, I have worked for someone who got it right most of the time. One story (event) will always stick with me. I was working as an individual contributed at a $6 billion dollar company. Lots of work and plenty of deadlines. I had a 3-year-old at home and a a 16-week-baby and had just returned from my second maternity leave. My baby (seemingly) never slept. I was exhausted day after day after day. I was not performing my job well. I always loved my job, loved my company, completely believed in what I was doing but was in a time when I was not giving 100 percent and not feeling proud. I was exhausted. I went to my manager and said, “I need to quit, take a leave, something….this is not working. I am so tired I cannot think.”
    There was a bit of back and forth and she ended our conversation with, “when you have slept 8 hours a night for an entire week, come back and see me and we will talk about you leaving.”
    I was stunned. She would not let me leave or even consider it.

    Within 6 or 8 weeks, my baby was sleeping. I was sleeping. All that exhaustion melted away. I forgot I ever wanted to leave. I stayed for 11 more years and had an awesome run with that company and that manager.
    I learned an important leadership lesson from her…. If you will ‘cry’ when a certain person tells you they are leaving – you do what you can to help him/her through the tough times. If you feel rather neutral when someone is leaving or making noises about leaving – gently show them the door and wish them well.

  • >