Stories of Emotional Leadership

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Mar 1, 2022

Emotion is an atavistic force in the foundations of human civilization. The Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) downplayed emotion’s role, favoring logos to pathos in all human affairs, including science, industry, politics, and that most emotional of human urges, religion. But the last 30 years have witnessed a sharp turn that has returned emotion to its rightful place in explaining human behavior. 

It started with the 1995 publication of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) by Daniel Goleman. Since then, emotion has become a critical part of the practitioner and academic community. Indeed, “EQ” has become part of the public lexicon. Amazon shows more than 8,000 titles about emotional intelligence. Google Scholar lists more than 3 million articles involving EQ. And untold tens of thousands of consultants claim EQ as a specialty. 

The real advance came in the 2005 book Resonant Leadership by Richard E. Boyatzis. It went beyond EQ to posit that leadership was itself an emotional phenomenon. That is, what leadership does is affect us emotionally. It stirs us, inspires us, lifts us, and ennobles us, through feeling more than thinking. Pathos now trumps logos. “In addition to managing themselves well, emotionally intelligent leaders manage others’ emotions and build strong trusting relationships,” Boyatzis writes.

This was a genuine advance because leadership had always been thought to be an intellectual product of the Enlightenment. But leadership is a deeply emotional experience. In the book Primal Leadership, authors Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee explain: “Very often, it is the leader who sets the tone and helps to create the emotional reality. The more open leaders are — how well they express their own enthusiasm, for example — the more readily others will feel that same contagious passion. Leaders with that kind of talent are emotional magnets; people naturally gravitate to them.” 

The proposition is that people gravitate to leaders based on how they make them feel. We leave jobs because of how we feel in that environment that is cultivated by the leadership. Our feelings guide us. Even our memories are disproportionately colored with the emotional experience that we had at the time. 

No less a leader than John McCain said in Rolling Stone, “A leader’s real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.” 

So how do leaders convey emotion? Facial expressions, body posture, energy, enthusiasm, and genuine concern are surely sound devices. 

So is storytelling. 

Storytelling is the activity of relating cultural traditions to members that explain history, values, proper conduct, and more. Stories, or narratives, can be entertaining and educational. They are instructional translations that express issues of great and enduring meaning. Storytelling has found its way into everyday notoriety and the business and management realm. 

Stories are also an effective way of communicating because they are memorable. More importantly, we tell stories because we remember them. They stay with us throughout our lives. We recall them when we don’t recall other significant life events. The stories we’ve accumulated throughout our life stay with us. They are part of our collective memories. And they transmit what we remember about those moments. Most importantly, they recollect how we felt at the moment.

So how do emotions and stories weave together? 

We decided to engage this relationship between leadership and emotion through a very simple story scenario. We asked 789 professionals across the Atlantic seaboard (61%t men, 39% women, average age 41, and average work experience of 19 years) to tell us a story using this simple sentence stem:

Imagine the person who has had the most profound impact on your personal and professional career. Tell a story that captures their impact on you. 

We got 498 stories in return, ranging from 99 to 456 words. 

These stories were then processed through the text analysis program NVivo. which associates nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs to identify themes. It’s far more sophisticated than the “word cloud” we’re used to. NVivo provides careful representation of what was said.

The results were clear. A full 70% of the stories were identified as being primarily emotional in nature. What people recalled in their stories were about feelings. Here are a few quotes:

What he said made me feel that I could handle this client.

What she did made me believe that I could achieve what I didn’t ever think about achieving before. 

The whole conversation made me think that I’m more talented than I thought I was. It gave me some real confidence. 

I didn’t believe him at first. It just wasn’t something I thought I was capable of. But I tried it and, lo and behold, I was. That made me feel damn good. 

He made my failures seem like no big deal. I didn’t feel like a failure after that. 

When people recall who profoundly impacted their lives, they remember how that person made them feel. Not what they thought, but how they felt. Simple as it is, this is pretty profound data. The impact we have on another person is remembered, recalled, and summoned, as an emotional experience. 

In 1979 Gregory Bateson, famed anthropologist and social scientist, related in his book Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity:

“There is a story which I have used before and shall use again: A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his private large computer. He asked, ‘Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?’ The machine then set to work to analyze its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed its answer on a piece of paper, as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words: 


Storytelling is universal and is as ancient as humankind. Before there was writing, there was storytelling. We remember stories, and if we tell them concisely and meaningfully, they will be remembered by listeners. 

This is all about leadership. Leadership through stories has the power to establish norms and move the group toward a higher emotional tone. As leaders, we are supposed to have an impact. We’re supposed to leave something that followers will remember, something that made them better. For those of us who imagine ourselves as leaders, what do we want to be remembered as? What is our legacy? 

What stories do we want to be told? What emotions do we want to evoke? How will those be remembered? 

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