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The emotional labour of leadership

Much of my work is centred on supporting those who exercise leadership to take up their roles in ways that inspire willing, rather than coerced followership. To this end, my work also has a focus on facilitating, for the leader, a deep sense of awareness of their character and emotional health and how this translates into his or her ability to influence and lead change. Leadership for me has nothing to do with seniority, titles, or simply personal attributes alone. Rather, I understand leadership to be a process and activity of social influence, which maximises collective potential and effort, towards an end goal, large or small. The ability to maximse the effort of others can at times be a laborious task, which often requires not just intellectual effort but emotional labour.


The emotional labour of leadership

I have always believed that those who exercise leadership, have a responsibility to do no harm. Compassionate leadership assumes a felt sense of interdependency between people by acknowledging the strengths and struggles we all have as human beings. More than simply feelings of empathy, I understand compassion to be inextricably linked to action, (however small). This action demonstrates a willingness to put others ahead of oneself and, in doing so, intervene in situations to relieve another’s distress or suffering.  A socially conscious leader considers the effects of their actions on others, acts ethically and uses their power and influence to mobilise resources to address challenges and deliver outomes that promote a good society. Organisational effectiveness and humane organisation cultures for me are not contradictory goals. Effective organisations are those that consciously create humane places for people to work.  Most days I come into contact with the machinery of organisations and the resulting conflicts and creativity that arise between people and ideas as they work together. My experience has taught me that while suffering is part and parcel of human existence, and regrettably, organisational life, we are not necessarily equipped to confront it or respond to it well. Nor in organisational life, are organisational members practiced in courageously alleviating the suffering that we may be inadvertently responsible for. To do this well requires a competency that is not often talked about in leadership circles – emotional labour.

Labour of all kinds requires considerable staying power, sheer effort and energy. The findings from my reserach confirmed that emotional labour is one of the key functions a compassionate and courageous leader undertakes. If you liken this to the labour of childbirth it puts a whole new spin on it! So, what constitutes emotional labour? Emotional labour means providing safe harbours for others to express their emotions, choosing which emotions to express, when and to whom; bolstering your own and others confidence through optimism, managing frustrations and disappointments, acknowledging fear and working with the unknown, sharing spontaneous and authentic emotions; taking risks to become vulnerable and authentic; and bringing humanity into the leadership role.

Research participants from high pressure political environments shared some interesting insights. Although they acknowledged the value of emotional labour as critical to their success and most importantly their wellbeing, some very real conflicts existed. Pervasive cultural messages that say; ‘Leaders should keep emotions (their own and others), out of the work place and practice administrative rationality’ remain  alive and well. These types of messages, rooted in fear, imply cookie cutter employees and one dimensional people are easier to lead,  are not at based in reality nor are they helpful for leaders and organisations on many levels.

Most living breathing human beings will tell you, if we deny our emotional life, we drive our humanity underground. For organisations this means a risk to the loss of creativity, passion and vibrancy in the workplace. The message from my research is clear, if you want to be more effectvive as an influencer and mobilise the creative energies of people, start with cultivating your ability to understand and deftly manage and use your emotions in service of your leadership.

“You cannot selectively numb emotion. When we numb [hard feelings], we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”
“Lindy was inspirational and made me feel enthusiastic about being a leader in the workplace. I also appreciated the learning environment she created, where I felt safe to express my emotional experiences and use these to enhance my effectiveness as a leader.”

– Participant LGPro Ignite