Studying politicians: emotionally-intelligent leadership can be taxing

David Cameron
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Leadership is not easy and certainly not for the faint-hearted. I watched the unravelling of ‘The Panama Papers’ furore and thought it a great example of not just how important emotional leadership is to understand but how easy it is to get wrong.

The PM was clearly hurt (“deeply hurtful allegations against my father” – House Of Commons 11th April) and angry when he faced the cameras when it was revealed his father had used an off-shore tax haven.

Mr Cameron may have held resentment about perceived unfair treatment of, his dearly beloved father and, himself. 

Panama Papers

Mr Cameron reacted negatively to the ‘Panama Papers’ situation by first reacting strongly to and then holding onto and not dealing with his emotions.

It was clear to see he was not letting go and allowing these emotions to be felt fully, understood fully and so resolved and let go.

He, instead, pushed back, like many of us might in such a situation, holding onto these unhelpful emotions. As a consequence it took him a while to, get to grips with and, take command of both himself and the situation he faced. 

Importance of Emotional Transparency

This allowed others to (mis-?) read Mr Cameron’s behaviour as lacking transparency.

Critics have taken the opportunity to suggest the Prime Minister didn't show clearly what he was feeling. This left a void where openness and expression was specifically expected.

Mr Cameron may have felt his dealings and emotions to be a private matter, feeling they had little relevance to the public domain.

If we aren’t dealing with our emotions, then they’re out there, being seen, being felt and so are affecting others.

But when we are such public figures, it’s not just the subject of disclosure that becomes contentious but the fact that millions of people get to see all the emotional ‘stuff’ we’re not dealing with.

Here’s the crux. If we aren’t dealing with our emotions, then they’re out there, being seen, being felt and so are affecting others.

Mr Cameron may well have felt his treatment quite unfair with the facts not deserving such treatment.

After all he did actually fully pay tax on these off-shore earnings. But emotions are not fact and if people feel we are holding back, not expressing what we’re feeling, then this in-congruency can feel like a lack of transparency, a void into which suspicion can grow.

It’s interesting to note Mr Cameron’s characteristic lip tightening expression which can also add to such an impression of not fully expressing himself.

Deal with emotions as soon as you can

It's best to take emotions as they arise and let them flow through us with minimal obstruction, being aware that allowing them to hang around and ‘kick off’ will not help us.

Some people find it a useful perspective to realise that emotions aren’t ‘us’, they don’t define reality and certainly shouldn’t define us. Emotions are messages.

Emotions are not fact and if people feel we are holding back, then this incongruency can feel like a lack of transparency

Holding onto negative feelings longer than necessary gives these emotions energy, time to grow to further react and resonate with others who may then project these reacting emotions even further.

As we have seen, that can be damaging on a number of levels.

But this requires a high degree of self-awareness to know where we are ‘emotionally’ at a given time and then acceptance so we can manage emotions appropriately for our benefit. 

Let it go

Boris Johnson seems to handle this type of situation more effectively, much of the time. He shows flexibility and seems to let go of emotions quite easily. So he appears more transparent and less reactive. This also means he is able to construct more appropriate emotional responses ‘in the moment’. 

When Boris doesn't react with strong negative emotions he is able to stay present with his emotions and is then able to express them quite cleanly. His body language is more relaxed and flowing in rhythm with his words.

We feel we can accept people we are able to read easily.

He can therefore seem more open and congruent. That’s why he's able to be himself and get away with some very human idiosyncrasies.

We feel we can accept people we are able to read easily. It makes us ‘feel’ safe and trusting regardless of their views or actions. This was a major strength for George Bush Jnr. Gaffs, for instance, actually seem to only strengthen these people’s positions sometimes.

Of course leadership, and its foundation of trust, are composed of many emotional elements relating to how we handle ourselves and others that promote things like emotional congruency.

This ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (EI or EQ) consists of many elements such as optimism, self-acceptance, flexibility, emotional expression and empathy.

I use Boris here to demonstrate just one aspect. Indeed an Independent poll a few weeks before had the PM ahead slightly of Boris on Trust. This may have changed of course.

Emotional Lessons of Panama Papers

We can all learn from Mr Cameron’s very human reaction here:

  • It’s OK to show emotion ‘appropriately’ – if it reflects your true feelings and if it truly serves you. This critical balance takes awareness and practice. For instance if you feel your father is being attacked unfairly.
  • Allow people to feel compassion for you - showing our humanity is not a weakness, and those that may perceive it as one are missing out on connecting fully with people.
  • It’s best to work out what and why you feel something (write and talk about it) as soon as you can and then, as the song goes ‘let it go’.

I believe Mr Cameron missed the opportunity to share and show the true feelings of a hurt son. 

This reality would have dramatically changed that week’s dynamics. His humanity and the feelings of a loving son would have resonated strongly throughout the country and the media would probably have reacted more positively.

Of course it's not easy is it?

Obviously we’re not suggesting it’s a simple case of changing behaviour. Our beliefs and conditionings look to reinforce themselves regularly. Any chance they get they resonate and connect with new experiences.

Leadership, and its foundation of trust, are composed of many emotional elements relating to how we handle ourselves and others

However the more we are able to stop, calm ourselves and minimize our reactions the more we create newer ways of being that work better for us. These newer ways will not resonate so negatively to future challenging experiences.

This is personal growth and a move towards more authentic leadership.

British people felt the PM's unexpressed emotions: hurt, anger and resentment. This is what resonated. Unfortunately Mr Cameron’s perceived lack of transparency meant these emotions resonated back at him via other grievances such as the sensitivities around the ‘haves and have not’s’ in our society. 

The more we are able to stop, calm ourselves and minimize our reactions the more we create newer ways of being that work better for us.

That's what can happen when holding onto unresolved feelings and allowing them to resonate. Assessing and monitoring our daily mix of emotions and minimising our reactivity when our buttons are pressed is the practical world of Emotional Intelligence testing and training.

Yes it can take a courageous, questioning mind and can be challenging but the benefits can be immeasurable.

Philip Gimmack is CEO of EQworks – Emotional Intelligence specialists.

About Philip Gimmack

Emotional Intelligence expert -Philip Gimmack

Philip Gimmack runs EQworks, emotional intelligence training & executive coaching specialists based in London. Developer of the A.R.T. interpersonal skills (EQ) assessment, he builds leadership, relationship and resilience skills.Philip also runs motivational speaking seminars across the UK.

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12th May 2016 08:39

Great article - EI is a rich field and a lifetime journey.

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