As we enter a new era for IT organizations, our next generation of leaders will have to embrace the idea of emotionally aware leadership.
By Charles Araujo
"Ugh, some men can be such jerks. Why can't I find a guy who is emotionally available and will open up sometimes?"
I was having dinner with a female friend who had just finished a somewhat messy divorce and was returning to the dating scene. And it wasn't too pretty. Our conversation conjured up images of the prototypical man: strong, stoic, unemotional. And while this perception certainly isn't true of all men, we all know plenty of men who fit this bill perfectly.
Unfortunately, this idea of being unemotional as being synonymous with strength has also permeated our business cultures around the world. This makes sense because, let's face it, our business cultures were historically created by men. So within the workplace, we have this idea that there is no place for being emotional and that it is better to demonstrate strength and assuredness than anything that might suggest weakness. As a result, you might describe most of our corporate cultures as emotionally unavailable.
The problem, of course, is that this is just plain wrong.
The Truth About Our Brains
As much as we'd like to believe that we humans are primarily rational beings, the hard truth is that the vast majority of our decisions and actions are driven by emotion. In his book Predictably Irrational, Daniel Ariely gives example after example of how seemingly rational humans make completely irrational decisions. And there's a very good reason for this: it's how we're wired.
Recent neuroscience research has shed lots of light on how our brain works and operates. The emotional side of our brain developed first and is, in fact, the much more powerful part of our neurological makeup. The rational brain was the last to develop and while it is what sets us apart, it is also powerless when our emotional instincts kick-in. In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Dan and Chip Heath describe it this way:
"the...tension is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched."
While most of us seem to understand the raw power of emotion, we also seem to believe (incorrectly) that we can overpower emotion with rational thought. And so we ignore and even deny the power of emotion in our everyday business thinking and interactions, but that just isn't how it really works.
The Emotional Leader
If I were to tell you that your new boss is an "emotional leader," you would immediately think that he or she is unstable, unpredictable, wishy-washy and maybe even unable to make a decision. We prefer to think of our leaders as the strong, stoic and unemotional type—the kind of "manly" leader typified in movies. But if we really think about it, our greatest leaders have actually been quite emotive. They inspire us. They make us feel that they care about us. Yes, they demonstrate strength through their vision and decision-making abilities, but it is because we believe in them—which is an emotional response—that we see them as great leaders.
As we enter this new era for IT organizations, our next generation of leaders will have to embrace this idea of emotionally aware leadership. While I believe that true leaders have always connected with the emotional sides of our brains, the stakes have increased for IT leaders who are trying to navigate this new era.
This is the sixth and final article in a series called "What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man" In it, I've been exploring the skills, traits and characteristics that will be required of our next generation of leaders during this period of transition and transformation. A key element of this transition is that it will be a time of creative destruction that will stir up a significant amount of emotion and angst as ideas and the conflicting cultures of the past and the future clash. The Digital Renaissance Men and Women of our time will need to be unafraid to embrace this creative destruction, but must also be emotionally aware enough to help us navigate through it. Trying to be stoic and ignoring the highly emotional responses created by this time of transition will be a recipe for chaos.
The Three Signs of Emotional Awareness
For my friend looking for a good man, "emotional availability" meant the willingness to be open and to embrace their emotional being. Fundamentally, it's about a willingness to be vulnerable. When I talk about the need for Digital Renaissance Men and Women to be emotionally aware, I mean essentially the same thing. To be a leader in this time means that you must be aware of and sensitive to the degree of vulnerability that will exist as our world churns. That can be hard to do when everything is changing so fast and we ourselves are under such a significant amount of pressure to adapt, but it will be these emotionally aware leaders that will be most successful at guiding their teams through the disruption.
But it will also require balance. You must ensure that you are sufficiently vulnerable and open to the emotional needs of your team, but not become the kind of touchy, feel-good leader that gets nothing done. There are three clear signs that can help you strike the right balance.