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Leadership is about emotional regulation

Leadership is about emotional regulation 

I have to come clean here. Leadership is not about emotional regulation*. Because to make that statement you have to understand what emotions are made of. When you understand that you will get a feel of the essence of leadership.

Emotions in leadership

We all understand that emotions in leadership are not very useful. Think about the president of your country. Would you take him or her serious if they would show emotions? Most of us wouldn’t even if the emotions are sincere. Even in a time where vulnerability is becoming more accepted. We expect our leader to show little emotion and lead with a detached but compassionate demeanor. Right?

What is leadership about?

Most leadership models are not about emotions at all. Leadership ‘is’ about communication, vision, strategy, going first, winning the minds and hearts and so on. Only the better leadership programs pay attention to state management. That is the closest most programs get to ‘emotional regulation’.

The stuff emotions are made of

Despite all that, leadership is about emotional regulation! And 90% of leadership comes down to emotional regulation. Well that is not fully accurate. To be more precise, leadership is about the stuff, emotions are made of.

I understand this is quite a statement but the more I test my research the more I am convinced this is true. To understand emotions we have to realize that emotions are not the beginning of our responses. Emotions are the end result. The end result of a complex and fascination proces. Only recently laid bare by neuro-scientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. In How emotions are made she describes how changes in our bodies form one of the most important ingredients for our emotional brain. To understand her research I recommend reading her book. For the sake of this article I will give you the abbreviated version of how our emotional brain works.

Responding with a prediction

Physiological changes in our body are important. Very important even. When our energy needs in our body changes, our bodies are in imminent danger. Because if these energy needs are not adequately managed our bodies could be harmed. This proces is so relevant for our brains that approximately 70% of our brain, at any given moment, is involved in monitoring these needs and responding to them. The brain is responding to these changes. The way it is responding is unique. And not only unique. The way it is responding is very different than we thought. It is responding with a prediction! A prediction of what to expect next. A prediction to manage our energy needs.

How we feel

A neural network is monitoring our bodily changes and distilling predictions out of these changes. With one goal only. To make sure our energy needs are met. It is important to understand that the ‘change-prediction’ cycle is ‘other than conscious’. This means that we are not consciously aware of these processes. The ‘only’ thing we experience from all of this is ‘how we feel’.

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

The only real, reality we experience

All of these statements are very common statements but we hardly ask ourselves what they mean. We say these ‘things’ as if they are real. Real somewhere out there. As if they exist in the world, as if they are actually real ‘out there’ in the concrete world. But they are not real in any concrete sense. They only exist inside our bodies. In how we feel when we make these statements. However, they are very real to us. So real that we are willing to break up relationships or work so hard we end up in a burn-out. Real in a sense that when you think about it, they are the only ‘real’, reality we experience.

Does it feel right?

In the end we all make the same assessment. Does something feel right? Or does something feel wrong? Do I have a good feeling about something? Or not? No matter how we came to these conclusions. For example, we can make a scientific analysis but what matters in the end is if we feel good about the result of what we produced. Or we could completely intuitively decide something is right. We know something is real and true because we feel it is the ‘truth’. When we fully trust our intuition, we experience a felt truth. This felt reality is something we can cling to, never challenging what we base our decisions on. Why? Because is feels right! 

When what you feel, is completely wrong

My former partner was pregnant and we both deeply felt that our unborn child would be a boy. When I shared my ‘feelings’ with her she said ‘i feel the same!’. We were overcome with joy. Our sense of togetherness and our other than conscious prediction of the sex of our unborn made us feel even more deeply connected. A prediction we both felt ecstatic about. All this in a realm of our mysterious energetic connection. This felt so true for us, we couldn’t even think of a girls name. Until our daughter was born.

How do emotions emerge?

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 emerge? Emotions emerge depending on the quality of our prediction. When you feel great, your brain will predict great things and you could feel exited, joyful, elated. When you feel bad, your brain could predict rejection, loneliness, no succes and so on. 

Decision making and leadership

Understanding what you base your decisions on is a relatively new field of research. What does it take to have a vision about your company or the future? What do you base that vision on? Fear of rejection? Driven by the desire for recognition? Succes? Being the best? A fear of what might come? The same goes for your decisions, plans and strategies. Who you decide to work with and who not. The list is endless.

Understanding your decision making process might be the most important skill a leader needs. How can you set goals without understanding your real motives? How can you be truly congruent if you don’t know where your ‘intuitions’ came from? Are your feelings based on what is ‘in front of you’? Or are they based on some mismanaged emotional regulation of the past?

Decisions that are needed

Would your company, or even society want you to make decisions on what is objectively needed? Or would you rather base them on emotional regulation mishaps we all suffer from? ‘Mishaps’ most of us unconsciously suffer from.

Wouldn’t you want to be the best leader you were born to be? Would you want to be able to make decisions on what matters to you? Are you longing to be a leader that can make changes that are good for you? Good for your company? And good for the society your company is operating in?

If that isn’t the essence of leadership than nothing is. The good news? You can learn to be the best leader you can be. Feel me?!

Wassili Zafiris

Wassili Zafiris has developed the RETaC method. Relation Emotion Therapy and Coaching is a method that uses the latest neuro-scientific research applied to emotional regulation; relationships and leadership. 

*American Psychological Association

emotion regulation

the ability of an individual to modulate an emotion or set of emotions. Explicit emotion regulation requires conscious monitoring, using techniques such as learning to construe situations differently in order to manage them better, changing the target of an emotion (e.g., anger) in a way likely to produce a more positive outcome, and recognizing how different behaviors can be used in the service of a given emotional state. Implicit emotion regulation operates without deliberate monitoring; it modulates the intensity or duration of an emotional response without the need for awareness. Emotion regulation typically increases across the lifespan. Also called emotional regulation. 

process model of emotion regulation

a model proposing that emotion regulation may occur at two different points in the emotion-generative process: Antecedent-focused emotion regulation is evoked at the front end, or very early in the process, whereas response-focused emotion regulation occurs at the back end, or after an emotional response has been triggered. [proposed in 1998 by U.S. clinical psychologist James J. Gross]