Does Emotion Affect Leadership?

Emotion                You bet it does. During this time of the year, we focus on love and the wonderful elation that comes with finding that special someone.  Love is just one of the more powerful emotions that we feel.  According to Aaron Sloman, who wrote Motives, Mechanisms and Emotions, “Emotions are analyzed as states in which  powerful  motives  respond  to relevant  beliefs  by  triggering  mechanisms  required  by  resource-limited intelligent systems.” Wow. That is an incredibly complex statement, but it does apply to my point.  Let’s go through this one piece at a time. 

                “Powerful motives respond to relevant beliefs.” Our motivations are a major driving force to our actions.  The statement is clear that our motivations are reflections of our relevant beliefs.  I agree with this definition when I think about who and what I fight for the hardest – those things or people that I believe in the strongest. Beliefs are shaped by our experiences, our education and, in some ways, our personalities.  When we think about a belief system or structure, the basic ideology of that system or structure defines what is right and what is wrong.  Therefore, we believe and understand what is right and what is wrong.  The conundrum is that not every structure of right and wrong is the same; the variety of religions proves that point. Putting all of this together, it makes sense that our relevant beliefs form the basis of our motives–sometimes powerful motives.   

                “Triggering mechanisms required by resource-limited intelligent systems.” This part is more of a tongue twister but is applicable to the point.  Sloman goes further to help define what this section means by writing, “The effects may interfere with or modify the operation of other mental and physical processes.” Simply put, while we are focusing on responding to the stimulus, we are taking away some of our abilities in other areas. We (as humans) are “intelligent systems”, but we only have so much attention span and understanding to work with. When our “powerful motives” are stimulated, we respond with the section of the brain called the amygdala (See my blog When Our Brains Work Against Us).  This makes more sense when applied to a situation like being around someone we love; we may lose sight of anything and everyone else. 

                To bring this back to leadership, does emotion affect leadership? Yes! Our leadership styles and abilities are also shaped by our beliefs, which in turn drive our motivations.  The hard part is to be aware of this and control it internally.  I’ve stated more than once that we, as leaders, are not made of stone. We will experience our own emotions and impulses.  The important thing to remember is to be cognizant of the effect of our own emotions or “responses to powerful motivations” and handle it accordingly.  We have a finite amount of brain power. Use it wisely.   

 – Lori Buresh

CEO, The Professional Development Team


A.  Sloman, `Motives Mechanisms Emotions’ in Emotion and Cognition 1,3,

pp.217-234 1987, reprinted in M.A. Boden (ed) The Philosophy of Artificial

Intelligence “Oxford Readings in Philosophy” Series Oxford University Press,

pp 231-247 1990.


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  1. #1 by Dr. Dan Price, DM, PMP on February 14, 2013 - 1:18 pm

    Yes, emotions play a critical role in leadership! Successful leaders understand this and deal with it on a daily basis. All too often people think that good leaders need to leave their emotions at home. Our team members don’t, so why should leaders? Good leaders fully understand the concepts of “head” and “heart” as they proceed. Emotions play a critical role. Thanks for bringing this up!
    Dan Price

  2. #2 by Phil Sears on February 15, 2013 - 9:41 am

    That is an excellent presentation, and I agree with it. Thanks!!

  3. #3 by GW Kor on February 18, 2013 - 1:43 pm

    Certainly to some extent. But I think leadership is often situationally specific, and some leadership situations call for emotionally expressive leadership, other situations call for emotionally restrained leadership. In some social circles, the “alpha” person’s emotions are triggers that generate responses from the followers and would-be alphas. In other work environments, emotions are observed, but the controlled expression of emotions is a more effective incentive for followers to stick with the leader.

    Having studied organizational leadership for years, it seems that leadership” is not simply an attribute that people “have” or don’t have. It is VERY situational. In different situations, the same person can be a “leader” or just another person getting by. (Or, if placed in charge in a situation they aren’t suited for, a bad manager.)

    I have seen former generals in the business world as CEOs who seemed out of their league. No names, but I’m sure there are plenty of cases that anyone can think of that apply. And then there are historic cases of great military leaders who couldn’t manage a general store on the corner of their hometown.

    Reflecting back on the age old question of the difference between a leader and a manager, managers meet organizational deadlines and metric goals, and sometimes even get to set the organization’s metrics and goals. Leaders keep a team motivated, inspire cohesion, and inspire a sense of ownership in the organization’s status, cohesion, and accomplishments. And sometimes, leaders are even liked or loved.

    Now the tougher part of your question comes with this speculation that leadership is somewhat “tribal”. Conceptually, a tribal leader isn’t necessarily transferable. It depends on the leader’s savvy ability to quickly earn loyalty and power and to keep it among different types of tribes. A 20 year old hoodlum leading a pack of car thieves in an inner city might be charismatic and a “leader” for his tribe, but if he’s going to lead another type of “tribe”, say a military unit or a church group or a classroom, he will have to make changes to his approach and values. Sure, charm and charisma and the ability to inspire loyalty and trust are important, but the leader has to adapt his or her talents to every situation.

    One other random thoughts about political leadership and transitions: When a politician moves up, is he or she being a leader to a larger tribe, or redefining the “tribe” he or she is leading?

    I believe that Lincoln, who had a lot of traits of leadership that grew with him, and each time, he altered a bit of his tribal identity to meet the challenges of each new situation.

    Essentially, there seem to be a lot of elements of leadership that are situational. Only the truly talented can adapt to different constituencies and situations to be a “leader” in every management situation they are placed. Charisma (I.e., likability, charm, and quiet social confidence) is a big ingredient. So is honor and courage in any situation where someone wants to inspire trust and loyalty. But adaptability and the ability to understand the power structure in any new situation are key ingredients, too.

    • #4 by The Professional Development Team on February 19, 2013 - 1:00 pm

      I have to admit your comments have so many excellent points that I re-read it several times. I’m going to think on a few of them because I see several topics for future blog posts. Thank you for taking the time to write such a wonderful response!

  4. #5 by The Breaking Books on June 29, 2014 - 11:38 am

    It’s difficult to separate being a professional from being human. Strictly speaking, having one and not the other isn’t a good way to manage employees. I believe in the sentiment “there is a time and a place.” I recently read a book called “The Professional Woman’s Guide to Giving Feedback” (
    to gain insight into what can be an emotionally loaded situation, employee reviews. The book mentions that it is imperative to remain professional and emotionless when providing feedback, but refrains from addressing another emotional issue, how do you handle the emotional employee?

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