ATD Blog

Heart Over Head: The Importance of Emotional Leadership

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions, and to recognize and influence others’ emotions, is a critical leadership skill. It can make the difference between marginal accomplishment of a goal, and engaging the hearts and minds of team members to uncover innovative and game-changing solutions that exceed expectations.

Emotions represent the “heart” in the Head + Hands + Heart equation of leadership. It’s where leaders demonstrate that they care about and can connect with others. The emotions of individuals can either activate and motivate the team, or move them to disassociate from the goal and passively comply. Leaders who engage the capabilities (hands) and intellect (heads) of their team but fail to engage their minds and emotions (hearts) will find that there's a missing link to maximizing performance.

As a talent management professional, imagine that you're coaching a leader through an organizational transition. The current state is unworkable. She has a plan and vision for the future, but it will require radical change. She needs to know that it’s essential to communicate the “need for” and “plan to” change (head), the “requirements for” change (hands), and gain “support for” the change (heart). To effectively do this, it’s helpful to understand employee emotions (fear, excitement, uncertainty, confusion, distrust) and address each one to effectively encourage, motivate, and inspire the team.

In another scenario, you may be working with a leader who has been tapped to lead a major project for the organization. He assembles a team comprised of people with the right skillsets (hands) to develop a comprehensive strategy (head). But because you recognize the importance of ensuring that the team gets along and collaborates well together (hearts), you facilitate a teambuilding process at the beginning to establish a foundation that will help them effectively and successfully attain the desired goals. 

Emotional Deficiencies

We all know leaders who demonstrate poor emotional leadership. These are the ones who appear insecure, lack empathy, assume everyone on their team thinks like them, are far more task-focused and less people-focused, or lack sufficient relationship-building skills. They may be known as office bullies or highly authoritarian, viewed as using positional power, and seem blind and uncaring about how others perceive them. Some of these leaders focus excessively on the bottom line and quantitative metrics—ultimately, they are well-meaning but misdirected.


Employees can point to them in the company, and everyone hears about them in the business, political, and societal environment. The damage that their behavior has on the team and the organization is obvious because it’s the subject of frequent conversation. People keep wondering why “someone” in a senior leadership role doesn’t address the problem. Although these leaders may have some successes in obtaining business objectives, but it comes at the high price of disengaging a large percentage of their team.

Bottom line: these are the leaders that no one wants to work for, present to, or interact with, and the senior leadership looks to you to find ways to coach them. 

Emotional Balance 


Effective leaders strike a balance between tasks and people. This means that they are able to focus on building relationships with their teams to enable creativity, innovation, participation, and engagement. Simultaneously, they need to provide structure, goals, policies, and timelines to frame the work of the team. They need to work through the strategic challenges along with the personal emotions team members have about the challenges ahead.

Team members should not only understand the process for accomplishing their work. Leaders need to connect with them at an emotional level, so that they understand why their work is important and how they add value. And leaders should prioritize the interpersonal relationships in a team before addressing the work to be accomplished. This includes building a foundation of trust, self-awareness, concern for others, appreciation for others’ capabilities, understanding individual motivations, teambuilding, serving, and providing inspiration. 

Leading With Emotion 

As a talent management professional collaborating with leaders to achieve a goal or to drive change, here are several key ways to help them appropriately manage their emotions—and to influence the emotions of others. 

  • Identify the stakeholders. This includes different groups of employees, clients, investors, unions and retailers.
  • Anticipate how they feel. Put yourself in their shoes. Be specific and detailed in defining their interests.
  • Acknowledge their feelings and concerns. Address these early. Even if you don't have all the answers, let them know you're working on it.
  • Identify what they can do. People feel more empowered when they have choices.
  • Invite ideas and input. Implement their ideas wherever possible. This reinforces the value of their perspectives and concerns.
  • Communicate. There’s rarely any such thing as over communicating on a topic. 

Several years ago, I was part of a leadership team that had the unfortunate duty to inform a group of employees that we were closing their location. We opened the meeting by framing the business needs and quickly got to the point. We hoped to offer most of them jobs in a new site that required them to relocate. We knew that many might not be interested in moving their families, but we let them know that we valued their skillset and contribution, and that they could make a choice to accept relocation benefits or be provided with a separation package. Then we detailed our plans to help them and their families make the right decision for themselves. For the next several months we focused more on their personal needs and emotions, and less on the business at hand. The result was a group of employees with a positive connection to their future, based on the decisions they had made.
Talent management professionals are critical in ensuring their organizations develop emotional leaders who value not only the capabilities, skillsets, and intellect of their teams and colleagues. But it’s equally important to recognize the importance of engaging leaders as individuals with a wide range of heartfelt needs. These emotional leaders are so important to the business because they effectively manage their own emotions and positively influence the emotions of others to reach their goals.

About the Author

Priscilla Archangel has a passion for developing successful leaders. She provides executive coaching, leadership, and organizational development consulting to automotive suppliers, mid-market firms, companies transitioning through mergers and acquisitions, and nonprofits. She is a sought after speaker, teacher, and author/blogger with a passion for strengthening leaders, teams, and organizations to clarify and fulfill their purpose.  She believes that "everything rises and falls on leadership."

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