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Leadership and Emotional Agility

Leadership: Emotional Agility

Beate Baldwin

Executive education providers have been providing leadership development courses for over half a century but these courses have never been regarded more important as they are today. More specifically emotional intelligence is recognised as almost main stream in global companies (e.g. KornFerry’s Emotional and Social Competency Inventory is an accounting database of nearly a quarter of a million people). If the concept has existed for almost 30 years, why is it only now such a hot topic?

Emotional intelligence allows us to face complexity better: During this year’s AACSB annual conference in Hawaii (ICAM 2018), Susan David shared in the plenary session Emotional Agility: Why Even Smart People Get Stuck. Susan’s concept was heralded as a Management Idea of the Year by Harvard Business Review, and won Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea award. She challenged the “can do” attitude of many leaders based on wishful thinking and positive outlook, who are often unable to resist reality. Our brains have been outpaced by technology and the number of decisions we have to take increases constantly. The price is paid by our children, our communities and our colleagues.

Most resilient teams are open to emotions and diverse in their thinking and feeling. However, our cultural narratives are perverted and only allow positive feelings in the office, often leaving negative feelings aside. In segmenting off discomfort, positive thinking doesn’t allow us to deal with reality (sickness, losing your job etc.) nor does it help innovate (there is no innovation without failure). In the end, not allowing any feelings or only positive ones can undermine resilience. Not sharing your worries with your team does not make them feel better; research has shown that the team’s blood pressure rises anyway. Another study shows that emotional and social contagion explains why the likelihood of gaining weight is higher if a person in our social network has gained weight.

Emotional intelligence tunes in with our accrued need for purpose and self-realisation not only in our professional but also our private life. Susan David calls it the “walk your why”. We are so busy that we lose our why. Our negative feelings can tell us what we care about. To become more aware here are some tools:

  1. Writing it down. Recording negative emotions allows us to recognize patterns and see them as sign posts to our values. Noting the precise cause of emotions is important as it gives the needed granularity.
  2. Step out: emotions are data not directives. Being able to take a meta view, creating space between yourself and the emotion, between stimulus and response leaves us the space to determine who we want to be.

Tiny tweaks in your mind set, habits or motivation will make change more bearable and sustainable. Susan uses the seesaw principle to explain; the more emotions become heavy on one side of the seesaw, the more you as a manager alone on the other side will have to increase the distance to keep balance.

To summarise, emotional agility does not only allow us to be more effective at work, it brings us nearer to who we want to be. Showing up to emotions, channelling them, being able to label them enables us to engage in robust conversations even when they are uncomfortable. And as Susan David said: “Courage is not absence of fear but recognising fear and continuing to walk.’

Beate Baldwin is Director of Open and Executive Degree Programmes here at Imperial College Business School.

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