The Emotional Leader

We rest; a dream has power to poison sleep.
We rise; one wand’ring thought pollutes the day.
We feel, conceive, or reason; laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away;
It is the same: for, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free.
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability!

—Percy Bysshe Shelley in Mutability

At 41, Anna appears to be the quintessential modern woman.  With a Ph.D. in psychology and an MBA, she has been head of marketing at several blue-chip companies and is now General Manager of Marketing for a leading financial institution.  She is widely regarded as a consummate professional, enjoying the respect and admiration of her direct reports, the Board of Directors, and an impressive portfolio of clients.  Married for 18 years, she has two teenage daughters who both excel academically and in extramural activities.  But Anna is having a bad day.

For all her outward signs of fulfillment, Anna is a very lonely person.

In fact, Anna has more bad days than she would like colleagues and acquaintances to know.  She is suspicious of her husband frequently ‘working late’; her eldest daughter smoking pot has her feeling anxious and guilty; her mother’s recent death from breast cancer was a massive shock, leaving her with a clutch of questions she cannot frame, let alone answer; she feels threatened by her assistant general manager’s success and popularity with senior management and the clients; her relationship with one major client has become a crisis since she resisted the CEO’s advances at a conference; her excessively busy life is wearing her down, and an indefinable sense of alienation increasingly clouds her day.  For all her outward signs of fulfillment, Anna is a very lonely person.

Inclined to be impatient with the failings of others, and lately ever more distant and unforgiving, Anna never stops to think that literally, everybody else wrestles daily with similar or equally challenging circumstances and the emotional upheavals they unleash.  Empathy is consequently not her long suit; her lack of awareness and understanding of the storm-tossed lives of others leaves her largely incapable of managing her own emotional tempests.  And that undermines her leadership; she has the attributes, but not the disposition.

Since leadership is about inspiring, equipping, and deploying people to achieve a defined vision, understanding the human condition is an essential prerequisite.

That in part obviously entails a sound grasp of how emotions impact the lives of others as well as the leader’s own state of mind.  How else might one inspire people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all?  It is an intimidating challenge, for as Jane Austen observed in Northanger Abbey, “There is nothing people are so often deceived in, as the state of their own affections.”

What emotions might we have to contend with today?  We can consider anger, fear, desire (for sex, food and drink, freedom, fame, power, possessions, money, etc.), joy, sadness, grief, pleasure, inspiration, resentment, jealousy, pride, attraction, gratitude, frustration, satisfaction, excitement, relief, insecurity, anxiety, panic, disgust, disappointment, guilt, remorse, suspicion, curiosity, aversion, awe, fright, indignation, astonishment, amusement, admiration, compassion – perhaps on their own, but also often co-mingled with other emotions, sometimes intensifying or even conflicting, and therefore confusing.  ‘Experts’ squabbling about whether there are four, six, eight, ten, eleven, or 27 ‘key’ emotions, alerts one to the fact that they know rather less than they claim.

Obviously, the above list is not exhaustive and ignores the important distinction between drives and emotions, but it gives an indication of the complexity involved when we confront emotions.  Each one of the aspects of Anna’s life, and her emotional responses, would provide enough detailed complexity for a book, and the conclusions drawn would be forever controversial.

Historically, emotion was referred to as “affection” and “passion”, giving rise to phrases such as “affective urges” and “slaves of passion”.  Today “affection” is confined to scholarly circles, while “passion” is reserved for emotions of exceptional intensity, or is used as a virtue-signaling buzzword.  It is wise to remember this since one is likely to learn more about the impact of emotions on our own lives and those of others from the Bible, Aristotle, and Shakespeare than one would from all the squabbling schools of modern psychology.

We are constantly influenced by our emotions, even when we control them, for that very act triggers further emotions.  What are these relentless assailants?  An emotion is an organic reaction that unsettles normal bodily functions, affecting the state of blood vessels and muscles, heartbeat and respiration, sensory awareness, the condition of the skin, and mental agility.  The degree of disturbance obviously varies greatly between the different emotions, and also between different people affected by the same emotion.

To say ‘emotions are feelings’ is tautological.  Better to define emotions as involuntary physiological disruptions caused by chemical reactions in the body that naturally impact one’s mental state as well.  These chemical reactions are triggered in turn by events, past, present, and in an anticipated future, by external stimuli and also internal signals like hunger, thirst, and pain, and by memories, imagination, mental projections, conscience, and rational reflection.

Modern research has enabled us to better understand how information about our ever-changing reality is received by the senses.  It explains how the animal brain, prompted by its perception of whether a phenomenon is either desirable or undesirable, then drives the animal’s endocrine and motor system to react in an appropriate way to its sensed circumstances or the state of its body.

In addition to our five primary senses, we also have four secondary senses, situated in the brain.  Modern psychology acknowledges the imagination (for the production of images) and the memory (for the storing of images), but not the two secondary senses identified by Aristotle and Aquinas.  These are the synthetic sense that forms integrated images from data received by the primary senses in order to make reality coherent, and the evaluative sense or instinct that distinguishes the desirable from the undesirable.

When an animal is alerted by instinct, innate drives motivate particular kinds of activity e.g. the animal is driven to eat, drink, mate, attack or run away.  Modern psychology often refers to these innate drives as affectivity or emotions, but they are unconscious, promoting the bodily changes of which we become conscious and experience as emotions or feelings.  When we feel angry, for example, we experience the bodily sensations associated with the biological drive of aggression.

Emotions are an essential part of being human because we can only make decisions and act on them with the intervention of the appropriate affective drives.

Emotions, properly informed and controlled, should enhance our free decision-making, but when they are excessive, misguided, or uncontrolled, they obviously obstruct our ability to think and act freely.  For example, raging indignation at a colleague whose negligence has caused you to miss a deadline, can make it impossible for you to think rationally and freely choose to make the best of the situation.

Francis Bacon believed poets and historians to be “the best doctors of this knowledge, where we may find painted forth with great life, how affections are kindled and incited, and how pacified and restrained; and how again constrained from action and further degree; how they disclose themselves; how they work; how they vary; how they gather and fortify; how they are enwrapped one within another; and how they do fight and encounter one with another…”

Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.


  1. Andre: An excellent article. We seldom know the dragons that the other person battles behind the curtain that separates his/her private and public life. Those issues sometimes become more than the person can rationally cope with causing an abrupt change of behavior. The normal calm, productive, and personable employee or friend can abruptly become aggressive and disruptive.

    Put under enough pressure everyone will change from their normal sphere of actions.