Leadership Development: The Peril of Ignoring the Emotional Domain

Published On: February 1, 2023 09:13 AM NPT By: Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Father Augustine Thomas has a PhD in ‘Leadership Studies in Organization Development’ and currently serves as the Principal of St. Xavier’s College, Maitighar, Kathmandu.

Various neuroscientists have explained that humans have a unique and powerful neuro system that can be formed or deformed in life depending on how we direct our behaviors and thought patterns.

Have you ever wondered why some leaders lead with anger and aggression or why some organizational leaders can only be identified with their emotions? You might have encountered leaders who lead with compassion and understanding. Why are leaders the way they are? One way to understand it is to understand the psychological aspect of the leader. Some neuroscience studies have shed light on the behavioral patterns of the leader.

Nervous system: A ‘must know’ starting point

The widely known concepts of the neuro functions of the brain systems have provided insight into the psychology of leadership. Various neuroscientists have explained that humans have a unique and powerful neuro system that can be formed or deformed in life depending on how we direct our behaviors and thought patterns.

The prefrontal cortex, also known as the executive brain, occupies approximately 35% of the total brain in humans compared to a cat, with only 4% of the prefrontal cortex. Researchers have concluded that a person's environment contributes to the formation of the executive brain. For leaders, academic courses, work experiences as leaders, and leadership training and workshops help their brains to be specialized in certain directions.

The limbic system, another part of the brain, has several functions, including emotions and learning. Though the prefrontal cortex is responsible for daily functions, the limbic brain plays a major role in dealing with a crisis. In such unprecedented situations, the amygdala, a part of the limbic brain, steers actions through emotional reactions. This is when the leader’s real psychological self is unveiled. In such moments, hidden fears, emotional wounds, and unmet needs surface in the form of certain unhealthy reactions. The executive brain functions are then pushed away to the back seat.

Though no human is free of negative emotions, and the amygdala of each person has good and bad emotional memories, the leader's effectiveness depends upon the gravity of emotional damages or the strength of positive emotional experiences that the person has accumulated in their amygdala. The emotional storehouse of the leader must be sound and healthy to be an inspirational leader. The success of leadership and personal happiness depends heavily on how well a leader attends to their emotional needs.

Divergent leaders and the neural wiring

Another factor that neuroscientists have discussed for years is categorizing brain orientation as left and right-oriented brain functions. The left-brained leaders have strong analytical, logical, and verbal power, whereas the right-brained leaders are creative, intuitive, and emotional. Though both the hemispheres of domain in leadership cannot be considered as two separate entities, one domain can grow unproportionally dominant unless a conscious effort is made to balance them.

Most of the leadership training and workshops deal with left-brain functions. Therefore, communication skills, human resource management and development, strategic planning, and the courses taught in management degrees are primarily connected to the left brain’s analytical, logical, and vocal functions. People in leadership positions know that the leadership theories they have learned about cannot be applied that easily in real life. This is where the right hemisphere of the brain plays its role in the areas of creativity, emotion and intuition. The plan of the analytical brain can be smoothly executed by the creative brain addressing all the challenges that pop up in the course of execution.

Therefore, one must have a balanced development of both aspects of the brain system. Stretching the greater importance of the right brain to another level, all the analytical part can be done by a hired consultant, whereas the execution responsibility lies on the sole person of the leader. And thus, a leader must consistently attend to the right-brain development.

Ignored inner child of an ineffective leader

Empowering and strengthening the emotional part of the leader requires processing every unpleasant incident that has generated negative emotions in the person. What comes on its way is an automated defense mechanism that rejects reality by finding a scapegoat.

For some leaders, the emotional part of the person is like Pandora’s box. Once opened, it unleashes demonic anger, resentment, jealousy, inferiority complex projected in a bossy nature, and the list goes on. Though the brain tells the leader not to give in to negative emotions, the emotional aspect of the person rules heavily, and reactions become impulses out of control. Very soon, they will find themselves reduced to an unlikeable person.

Just like any other part of the human body, the emotional part of the person can be strengthened. The upbringing of the right-oriented brain of the leader is like the upbringing of the person's inner child. It requires a proper environment and safeguarding of the leader's emotional self. Therefore, the first and foremost step is in great humility and utter honesty to see, understand, and accept who you really are. Secondly, seek help from a mentor or a counselor if you have developed impulses in life. Third, stay focused on life's purpose, which can motivate the growth journey.

Intellect is good, but emotions control you

Leaders who can bombard you with ideas but don’t have the ability to implement any of them live their life in their heads. They can create a perfect organization in their heads based on the ideas they have gathered in their intellectual factory. They may also be able to ask amazing questions and provide mind-blowing suggestions, but these can be limited to the analytic part of the brain.

Intellectual capacity standing isolated from emotional intelligence is like a giant elephant tied down to a small tree with a thin rope. It restricts the leaders from being effective in their responsibility. With time, a toxic workplace environment may also be created since the leader consistently ignored or wore a mask on the much-needed emotional maturity. Then not only people who work with the leader but even their ideas may become more utopian and disconnected from reality. Making meaningful social connections becomes a tedious process.

Compassionate listening and understanding do not become part of the nature of the leader. Life and leading become a tiring thing for the person. The first step is to create sufficient space and time to sit back. Like the way you see the depth of a muddy river when the dust is settled, allow yourself to settle the dust every day.

Human psychology keeps changing depending on how we have allowed our lives to be, and so does the psychology of leadership. We are influenced by the need to gain leadership skills such as teamwork, strategic planning, networking, and many other areas that enhance our workplace performance. 

Nevertheless, we must not forget to empower our emotional and spiritual aspects. Leaders should consistently attend to the cognitive, feeling and behavioral level growth because it’s the emotional part that builds or breaks the leader. It’s a long journey, but maybe most leaders have already advanced much ahead in it.

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