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Emotions in the Boardroom

By Dr. Marcel de Roos (Psychologist PhD, the Netherlands)

In my psychology practice I have coached many business people from the corporate world. They operate in a highly competitive environment where it doesn’t pay to show one’s emotions. Especially CEO’s, entrepreneurs and higher management find it rewarding to talk in a private and professional setting about their personal issues. Generally speaking, the higher in hierarchy the lonelier it becomes. In management courses the focal point usually is on the analytical side and on control while well founded decision making requires balanced emotions too. Therefore, it is imperative that sound leadership should include knowledge about feelings and how to manage those.

Interest in leadership issues isn’t something from recent years. In the late fourth century BC Plato wrote his book ‘Republic’. In a part of this book, he described what he saw as the necessary qualities and training for a King-philosopher. He started something what we can call now a training centre for leadership (the curriculum was quite draconic and without any mentioning of emotions). Whether Plato was successful at this remains the question. When he tried to put his theory into practise in Syracuse (Sicily, Italy) as a teacher for the Tiran Dionysus, it nearly cost him his life.

Later on, different thinkers wrote about different aspects of leadership. Machiavelli for instance wrote about acquiring and maintaining (political) power and Max Weber about organisations and leadership. But it wasn’t until Freud that the new dimension “human nature” was added. Although nowadays many psychologists consider most of Freud’s writings as anecdotal, it opened the door to the study of emotions.

In the past decades many books (usually based upon American business models) regarding leadership issues have been written. There are bookcases filled with studies about required positive qualities for leadership. Literature about leadership is controversial; there is an abundance of competing theories with no clear-cut answers. The emphasis is on abstract theoretical concepts, while the subject of study, the leader, disappears in a haze.

Leadership is more than behaviour and thoughts; the complex psychological factors that form the personality of the leader are the key to his/her behaviour. That is why his/her “inner world”, his/her emotional make-up, is the driving force to success or failure in business. What happens with leaders when they have acquired power? Many leaders, who reach the top of their organisation, simply can’t cope with the stress that leadership brings them.

Leadership is idiosyncratic and psychological factors play a significant role. Not only behaviour and cognition, but especially (deep) emotions can make or break a leader. As a consequence, efforts in trying to change sub-optimal performing leaders solely on the mind and behaviour level are doomed to fail in the long term. What is needed is individual coaching or therapy where emotions form the focal point.

Business people in positions of CEO, higher management or as an entrepreneur live in a lonely, complex and stressful environment. They should realise that “feelings are stronger than the mind” and that they are prone to abnormal behaviour based upon their deeper emotions. A visit to a professional psychologist can be the start to form a more balanced personality.

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