Emotions: Leadership’s Secret Weapon

“Leadership isn’t something you do writing memos, you’ve got to appeal to people’s emotions. They’ve got to buy in with their hearts and bellies, not just their minds”

 ~ Lou Gerstner, former CEO, IBM

Business has a long tradition of ignoring emotions in favor of rationality. Feelings are dismissed as messy, dangerous, weak and irrelevant to day-to-day operations.

But a growing body of evidence reveals that subconscious feelings drive decisions. Psychologists, neuroscientists and behavioral economists now agree that leaders who fail to understand how emotions drive actions will ultimately fail.

Emotionally astute leaders leverage feelings to gain employee commitment, engagement and performance, according to Dan Hill, CEO of Sensory Logic and author of Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success (Kogan Page, 2008).

Similarly, experts featured in a Time magazine cover story (January 17, 2005) confirmed the link between satisfaction and productivity, citing a 10 percent improvement in job performance among fulfilled employees.

A company’s emotional climate may account for up to 30 percent of job performance, according to Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee authors of Primal Leadership. CEOs, they note, are responsible for creating more than 50 percent of this climate.


Numerous studies indicate that sustainable business success depends on three key leadership areas:

  1. The greater good. Leaders must influence others to join a cause greater than making a profit or creating good products or services. They should give employees reasons to believe in the company and its leadership ideals. They must establish themselves as credible, trustworthy and unselfish—role models who are looking out for the group and individual performers. They should ask others to join “us,” without sacrificing their “me.”
  2. Clear vision. Continual change may be traumatic for employees, so leaders must paint a convincing picture of the future that motivates and prepares people for what’s coming.
  3. Cohesive culture. Employees expect their leaders to read a situation in emotional terms and foster a climate of collaboration.

Each of these leadership roles requires emotional awareness and, most importantly, the ability to express appropriate feelings effectively.


Leaders must strive to get people on board and promote enthusiasm, but many miss the mark. Workplace statistics show that only 25 percent of employees are truly engaged.

Senior management’s goal is to develop an atmosphere of trust and generosity of spirit. When leaders give workers something they can believe in—a cause greater than the common good—they engage both hearts and minds.

While there is an inherent desire to identify and bond with one’s leader, people instinctively defend their own interests and exercise caution before committing their careers and livelihoods to anyone.


Pay disparities can throw a massive wrench into the trust equation. In 1990, the average American worker earned $27,000. Adjusted for inflation, this figure remains constant two decades later. But CEO compensation in the United States has increased 100 to 400 percent, and surveys show that 90 percent of institutional investors believe most executives are overpaid.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to predict that envy leads to divisiveness. Such pay disparities undermine workers’ security and sense of well-being. To make matters worse, the constant threat of downsizing and outsourcing magnify people’s fears.


As a leader, you will experience a “say/feel” gap: when your messages are incongruent with your physical expressions. In truth, facial expressions convey your feelings much more accurately than any words you say.

Research about messages estimates that 55 percent of meaning is derived from body language, 38 percent from vocal intonation and only 7 percent from actual words.

We discern emotional content from others’ facial expressions, with seven universal emotions that can be found across all cultures, according to studies by Paul Eckman:

  1. Positive: happiness
  2. Neutral: surprise
  3. Negative: anger, fear, sadness, disgust and contempt

Studies of CEOs’ facial expressions reveal that honest and robust social smiles trump all others when one wants employees to feel hopeful and buy into goals. The worst possible expressions are dislike, especially when combined with anxiety (fear). Condescending, scared leaders will invariably cut themselves off from others.


Employees require reassurance that they will be protected by astute, decisive leaders who know how to steer the company through tumultuous times.

The immediate impact of change is often quite negative, so emotional concerns must be alleviated. Emotionally astute leaders recognize there is always resistance, especially at the beginning.

It’s your job to provide hope while alleviating fear—not by denying it, but by predicting it, being honest about it and normalizing it. Successful leaders translate vision into action by explaining  why a company is taking a new direction, as well as the consequences for failing to act.

Honestly address why your company can no longer cling to the status quo. Workers’ emotional desire for security will motivate them to accept changes that initially cause them to recoil. To make a clear case, focus on emotional benefits.

Make sure your message is clear, simple, heartfelt and aligned with your company’s current emotional climate. Incorporate body language and facial expressions that strengthen the impact of your words.


The mark of great CEOs or senior leaders is their ability to build companies where employees feel welcome to participate, collaborate and receive recognition.

Building a corporate culture that inspires employees to give their best requires three qualities, according to The Leadership Challenge authors Kouzes’ and Posner’s worldwide survey on effective leadership:

  1. Honesty
  2. Forward-looking
  3. Inspirational

Never forget that the human side of business consumes most of a company’s operating costs. Failure to be emotionally adept is counterproductive—perhaps even suicidal.