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The emotional labour of leadership

I was privileged to spend time with a social planning and community development team at one of my local government clients a few weeks ago, facilitating my 4th year of business planning with them. We used a process of appreciative inquiry to help them reflect on the year that was, the high points, peak experiences and lessons learnt via a paired interview. I interviewed the Manager as the team had uneven numbers. The Manager recalled her year, vividly describing both successes and disappointments in a breathtakingly honest way. I cannot reveal the details of her story here, but what I was impressed by was the obvious labour of love she undertook, with great humility (I would add) in service of her leadership role. Leadership for her is marked by her full embodiment in the task of serving the community; physical, intellectual and emotional labour abound. She laboured with and over this community with enormous compassion and courage. Labour of all kinds requires considerable staying power, sheer effort and energy. The emergent learning from my doctoral research suggests 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!

What does the research reveal about 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.

Numb the dark and we also numb the light

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 organisational cultural messages that say; ‘Leaders should keep emotions (their own and others), out of the work place and practice administrative rationality’ are alive and well. These types of messages that imply cookie cutter employees and one dimensional people are easier to lead are not helpful for organisations on many levels. These messages are essentially rooted in fear and obfuscate reality.

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. This is the stuff of motivation, engagement and innovation. As Brene Brown tells us in her seminal work on vulnerability and courage, ‘Numb the dark and we also numb the light’.