Leadership and Emotions
One of the most easily recognizable quotes on the principles of leading comes from Niccolò Machiavelli. The famed 15th-century political philosopher is best known for his political treatise, The Prince. The term ‘Machiavellian’ has been studied in the psychological sciences as a personality trait, equated with the tendency to be deceptive, cunning, and manipulative. We can be forgiven for the negative connotation that the term elicits. Machiavelli, after all, did quote, “…that one (in this case the leader), ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting.” The quote has been simplified as, “it is better to be feared than loved,” but a more precise reading of The Prince suggests that political leaders are better placed to govern if they establish their legitimate authority and assert themselves over, or before, aiming to be likeable to their followers. We experience different emotions when we are asked to think of our leaders. Indeed, the mere recall of past interactions with these leaders is sufficient to elicit different brain activation patterns. Recollections of positive leadership interactions – what researchers call resonant leaders activate parts of the brain associated with reward and positive emotions; memories of dissonant leaders activated parts of the brain linked with diminished compassion, avoidance, and unpleasant emotions . There have also been recent developments for understanding the neurological mechanisms in which inspirational leaders shape follower perceptions and behaviour . Leaders’ behaviours have an observable effect on followers right down to influencing brain patterns.
Transcending the Self
Scholars and practitioners have come a long way from advocating Machiavellian, authoritarian and autocratic styles of leadership. About 30 years ago, leadership researchers examined what made leaders inspirational and charismatic. Charismatic leadership theory suggests that charisma is in part, because of how leaders rouse and convey followers’ emotions . A category of emotions that has recently been the topic of interest is self-transcendent emotions. These emotions that “arise out of other-focused appraisals, shifting attention towards the needs and concerns of others, rather than the self” . Self-transcendent emotions are those that, when experienced, prompt one to set aside personal interests and redirect one’s attention to the needs of others – usually by motivating prosocial behaviour. Such emotions are relevant to leaders. Leaders who elicit these feelings in followers motivate them to set aside personal interests and goals for the greater good. Self-transcendent emotions motivate the masses to act in a manner that serves the collective. Two of such self-transcendent emotions – the “emotions of influence”, are awe and inspiration.
Awed to Accommodate
Awe is a self-transcendent emotion that challenges one’s existing beliefs and understandings of the world. Awe can be elicited by leaders seen to be “larger than life.” Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt state that, “powerful leaders can be perceived as supernaturally talented and divine” leading followers to be ‘awestruck’ when interacting with such leaders . Think of leaders that elicit awe in you. These could be leaders that are technically skilled, immensely capable, or immeasurably effective. Leaders who inspire awe in their followers motivate them to transcend the limits of their understandings; they convey, through actions and accomplishments to followers, that greatness is possible. Awe is a self-transcendent emotion that prompts cognitive accommodation – the emotion broadens one’s understanding of what is possible and has been shown to even alter one’s perception of time . And this prolonged perception of time partly explains how awe-inspiring leaders motivate follower actions. Leaders who elicit awe create the impression that followers have time and space to accommodate new knowledge and understandings. Time slows; perceptions are altered; followers set aside preconceived understandings to accommodate the new, novel, and magnificent. One recent study showed that feeling awe motivates a prosocial tendency – team members feeling awed set aside personal interests and directed efforts towards cooperating to their team members . Awe, it seems resides at the core of what we feel, when we call a leader ‘charismatic.’
Inspired to Innovate
Inspiration is a positive emotion that evokes a state of transcendence, and subsequently motivates intentions to role-model another. The emotion is one that causes one to transcend “ordinary pre-occupations or limits of human agency” . This self-transcendent emotion’s relevance for leadership is obvious; inspirational leaders are those who, though inspiring communication and motivation, encourage followers to look beyond the ordinary. Inspired followers act differently from awed followers. Inspiring leaders motivate emulation – something not always possible with awed followers, and they do this by empowering and motivating identification from followers. That is, when leaders inspire followers, they empower them with the belief that role-modelling them is possible. This, in turn, enhances followers’ sense of meaningfulness towards their tasks . When leaders inspire follower, they also encourage them to identify with them, encouraging them to think that they are not too different from the leaders that inspire them . Here, you can think of a leader who inspires you. Chances are, such an inspiring leader can encourage you to improve yourself, using this leader as a benchmark of how you wish to be. Importantly, this inspiring leader is also one that likely trusts you, you feel empowered and encouraged by, and perhaps even one that you identify closely with. And the consequences of inspiration? Studies show that inspired followers were more likely to help co-workers  and more likely to be committed to their organizations .