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Leadership is about emotional regulation

By 14 May 2023 May 24th, 2023 No Comments

Leadership is about emotional regulation

Leadership is a hot topic and has been for decades. Somehow it is ‘the ultimate cool’ to say something about leadership, have an opinion about how to lead and even come up with a theory about leadership. About what it is and how to become one. Every once in a while, a new leadership theory emerges (at least with a newish name) and with a bit of luck it catches on and trainers and consultants become the messengers of the ‘new’ model. Disseminating the theory at governmental- and business institutions.

The ‘good’ leader

The underlying tone in many leadership theories is that of the ‘good’ leader. A good leader engages with staff and stakeholders. He (for ease of writing I choose the male leader) is a communications expert, can coach staff and is a mentor for his pears and leaders to be.

He is visionary, someone who has an inspiring vision of the future. So inspiring, that others follow naturally. He is the person that makes the right decisions in the heat of the moment. This leader is the hero and perceived as one. Actually, the leader ‘a good person’, someone who is an inspiration to us all. And the ultimate good leader has a Purpose, is good for People and contributes to a Healthy Planet (PPP).

The exceptional leader

If you wish to become a leadership trainer or consultant with a reputable institute, you will soon come across exceptional examples of leadership. From Kings on the battlefield and the Mahatma Gandhi’s of this world, to the Nelson Mandela’s, Martin Luther Kings’, Disney’s and Steve Jobs’. All used as extraordinary examples of leadership.

These exemplary figures are quoted as sources of inspiration for leadership models and analyzed and modeled to the last detail. From these exceptional personalities minimal clues are sought that exactly fit the image of the leader that the researcher would like to see. A leader with compassion, decisiveness, justice, with a worldview that aims to make the world a more beautiful place.


But how accurate is this actually? Are these leadership models not just mere projections of the persons who developed and propagate these models? Are these wonderful ideas not just mere expressions of wishful thinking? Hoping we can make the world a little better by inspiring leaders, managers and anyone who pulls a cart to a leading form of altruism?

The reality of leadership is much more unruly

I have been facilitating leaders and organizations for over 28 years and have come to realize that many leaders not at all comply with that described ideal profile. Actual leadership is based on a few pillars and those pillars are in stark contrast to the “nice” ideas found in books about leadership and how to become one.

Leadership is not necessarily at all about making the world better. Many products do not make society better, but actually worse. Let’s take plastic. Plastic is extreme convenient and in cases necessary, but at the same time our ecosystem is seriously polluted by it. And behind the big companies, are thousands anonymous stakeholders and those stakeholders are decisive for the ins and outs of the company. Leadership, many cases, is about power, staying put, no matter what the costs. Leadership is also often about fear: fear of losing status, power and position.

No vision, no mission

Yes, leaders do talk about ‘beautiful’ leadership ideas but in practice it often turns out that an average leader has no vision, let alone a mission. Leadership is about earning money, dominating the market, often getting as much as possible out of people for as little cost as possible. Sometimes leadership is even toxic. Unfortunately, these leaders use the ‘beautiful leadership ideas’ in their favor. To manipulate, play games, set people up against each other. Why? To stay in power.

Ideally, the leader would be a great personality

But ideal in whose eyes? Don’t get me wrong, of course there are loads of good people among leaders and of course there are leaders who want to create that that beautiful world. Fortunately, there are more and more leaders who are doing their best to deal with the dilemmas of the leadership position and dare to come out and give it their best to co-create that beautiful world. The world where the company makes a real contribution to society instead of just reframing what, for example, plastic is, supported by a ‘leadership consultant’.

That’s why I don’t want to talk about a new leadership model, but instead I want to talk about the underlying framework on which the leader bases himself. A new paradigm about leadership if you will. From where I am standing this new paradigm is the paradigm of emotional regulation. Leadership in essence is about emotional regulation.

The Five Pillars of Leadership

As I see it, leadership has five pillars. They are the essential criteria for leadership. Emotional regulation is rarely found in any of them.

  1. A leader must be able to look ahead. “Seeing what’s about to come” or having a vision (about what is to come).
  2. He must go first. Leadership is derived from the Old English ‘Lithan’, which means “going first”. This is about leading the way. Like kings at the battlefield or the sustainability advocate who maintains propagating his or her vision despite criticism.
  3. A leader inspires others to follow the vision. Because what is leadership without followers? It’s useless when you think about it. A leader cannot exist without people that want to follow.
  4. A leader can coach people to acquire the right skills. A leader also has the abilities to lead people to help you excel. To assist people and guide them to act according to the vision.
  5. A leader is a mentor and supports people in dealing with obstacles. The road to achieving a vision is not without obstacles. The leader faces adversity and resistance. The same goes for the people who are to follow the leader. How do you help them to keep faith? What can you do to support them when the going gets tough? How can you deal with limiting beliefs and emotional struggles?

Who would have ever thought that all these properties connect through one concept?  Emotional regulation!

Emotions and leadership

We all understand that emotions in leadership are not very helpful. Think of the president of a country. Would you take him or her seriously as the leader himself got lost in emotions? Many of us would doubt about his or her abilities, even if the emotions are sincere. We expect from our leader to shows little emotion and that he leads with a distant but compassionate attitude. Right?

Most leadership models are not about emotions at all. We are being told that leadership is about communication, vision, strategy, leading the way, winning the “hearts and minds,” and so on. Only the “better” leadership programs pay attention to state management. That’s what comes closest to ’emotional regulation’. But state management is not emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation

Leadership is about emotional regulation, because 90% of leadership comes down to that. To be precise, leadership is about “that” what emotions are made of. I understand that this is quite a statement, but the more I test my research, the more I am convinced that this is true.

To understand emotions, we must realize that emotions are not the beginning of our reactions. Emotions are the end result. The result of a complex and fascinating process. Only recently exposed by neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. In her book ‘How emotions are made’ she describes how changes in our body, are one of the most important ingredients for our emotional brain to make emotions from. To understand her research, I recommend reading her book. For the sake of this article, I will give the abbreviated version of how our emotional brain works.

To predict

Physiological changes in our body are important. Very important indeed. When our energy needs in our body change, our body is in immediate danger. Because if these energy needs are inadequately managed, our body can be damaged. This process is so relevant to our brain that about seventy percent of our brain at any given moment is involved in monitoring these needs. The brain responds to these changes. They do so in a consistent manner. Our brain responds with a prediction! A prediction of what to expect next. A prediction about how to master our energy needs.

How do you feel?

A neural network keeps track of our bodily changes and distills predictions from these changes. With one aim only. To ensure that our energy needs are met. It is important to understand that the cycle of “change- prediction’, takes place ‘other than consciously’. This means that we are not aware of these processes. The only thing we notice about this experience is how we feel.

How we feel seems to be the accumulation of all these processes and are generalized in a word or statement. ‘I feel bad’, ‘I am excited’, ‘I feel strong’, ‘I feel exhausted’, ‘I feel rejected, connected, appreciated…’ and so on.

We make these kinds of statements daily, but we hardly wonder what they mean. We say these “things” as if they were real, somewhere out there. As if they exist in the world, in the concrete world. But they’re not real in a concrete sense. They only exist in our body. In how we feel when we make these statements.

The only real reality?

However, our feelings are very real to us. They are so real to us that they for example, guide us in breaking up relationships or work so hard that we end up in a burnout. They’re so real, that when you think about it, they are the one and only reality that we experience.

In the end, we all make the same decision. Does something feel right, or not? Do I feel good about something, or not? No matter how we got these feelings. Even after a scientific analysis, for example, our final test is whether we feel good about the result. Or we can decide on something completely intuitively. Why? Because it feels good… or not!

When feeling right is wrong

My former partner was pregnant and we both felt in our gut that our unborn child would be a boy. When I shared these feelings with her, she said, “I feel the same!”. We were overwhelmed with joy. Our sense of togetherness and our other than conscious prediction about the gender of our unborn child. A prediction where we both, for magical reasons, were ecstatic about. And all this wrapped in one beautiful mysterious energetic connection. This felt so true to us, we couldn’t even think of a girl’s name. Until… our daughter was born.

We were both flexible and laughed about it. But when you think about it, most if not all of our decision making is based on how we feel about something. So how do emotions arise? Emotions arise depending on the quality of our prediction. When you feel great, your brain will predict great things. Then you can feel excited, happy and elated. If you feel bad, your brain can predict rejection, loneliness, adversity and so on.

Decision making and leadership

Understanding what you base your decisions on, is a relatively new area of research. What needs to happen for you to have a vision about your company? What do you base that vision on? Fear for rejection? Driven by the desire for recognition? Achievement? To be the best? The same applies to planning, strategizing and making day-to-day decisions. With whom you decide to cooperate and with whom not? The list is endless.

Understanding your decision-making processes is perhaps the most important skill that a leader needs.


Understanding your decision-making processes is perhaps the most important skill that a leader needs. How can you set goals without understanding your real motives? How can you really be congruent if you’re not aware where your ‘intuitions’ come from? Are your decisions based on what’s ‘in front of you’? Or are they based on mismanaged emotional regulation from the past?

Emotional deregulation

Would you (and your company or society) want you to make decisions about what is objectively is needed? Needed in ‘the world out there’? Or from emotional regulation mismanagement within yourself? Emotional deregulation is a result of how you learned to feel in the past creating endless mispredictions. Mispredictions that direct your current day decision making. By the way, these misprediction ‘accidents’ are normal and most of us suffer unknowingly from them. But it doesn’t mean you can’t change them.

What drives a leader?

Power? Satisfying stakeholders? Fear of losing one’s position? Money? Being the best? Dominating the market? Whatever it is, it’s all driven by feelings and all these feelings determine the predictions that the leader (unconsciously) makes. And the predictions determine the behavior of the leader. So there you have it: leadership is about emotional regulation!

Emotional regulation, predicting and leadership

Emotional regulation is the essence of leadership, only we didn’t realize that. Until now! Can you learn to be the best leader you can be? Can you influence your emotional regulation? Yes, that’s possible! By teaching leaders where they base their decisions on.

Leadership therefore is not about ideal images, but about emotional regulation. Because your feelings determine your predictions and your predictions your reality. And isn’t that what every leader ultimately wishes?

Wassili Zafiris

This article was first published in INSIGHT (INZICHT) April 2023 by Wassili Zafiris. INZICHT is the Dutch NLP magazine. You can download the Dutch article here.

Would you like to learn how to predict more accurately?

Visit the RETaC page to learn about new neuro-scientific evidence that, in my opinion, will change how you feel, lead and relate. You can join our RETaC Foundation training to become much more accurate in predicting, leading to better decisions, relationship and the ability to develop a vision. A vision based on accurate predictions! 

Becoming the ‘best’ leader?

Also have a look at ‘Leadership and Teamwork‘. All leadership seminars offered have emotional regulation at the heart of them combined with the best practically applicable leadership skills development.