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Leadership is about emotional regulation

By 22 May 2022 July 18th, 2022 No Comments

Leadership is about emotional regulation

Leadership is roughly about five main pillars. These are the essential criteria for leadership. They are at first not associated with emotional regulation.

  1. ‘Looking around the bend’ or in other words ‘seeing what is coming’. and having a vision (about what is coming).
  2. To go first. Leadership is derived from the old English ‘Lithan’, meaning ‘to go first’. This is about leading the way. Like the king in battle or the sustainability advocate who despite criticism keep on delivering the vision.
  3. Getting people inspired to follow the vision. What is leadership without followers? It is useless when you think about it. A leader does not exist without people willing to follow.
  4. Coach people to achieve the appropriate skillset. A leader also has the capabilities to help people excel. To help people and guide them in how to act upon the vision.
  5. Mentor and support people in dealing with obstacles. Moving towards a vision is not without obstacles. The leader will face setback and resistance but so will the people who follow the leader. How do you help them keep faith? What can you do to support them when things get rough? How can you deal with limiting beliefs and emotional struggles?

Who would have guessed that all these qualities come down to one concept: Emotional regulation!

We all understand that emotions in leadership are not very useful. Think about the president of a country. Would you take him or her serious if they would show emotions? Many of us wouldn’t even if the emotions are sincere. We expect our leader to show little emotion and lead with a detached but compassionate demeanor. Right?

What is leadership about?

Most leadership models are not about emotions at all. We are told that leadership is about communication, vision, strategy, going first, winning the minds and hearts and so on. Only the better leadership programs pay attention to state management. That is the closest some programs get too ‘emotional regulation’.

The stuff emotions are made of

Despite all that, leadership is about emotional regulation! And 90% of leadership comes down to emotional regulation. Well, that is not fully accurate. To be more precise leadership is about the stuff, emotions are made of. I understand this is quite a statement but the more I test my research the more I am convinced this is true.

To understand emotions, we must realize that emotions are not the beginning of our responses. Emotions are the end result. The result of a complex and fascination process. Only recently laid bare by neuro-scientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. In ‘How emotions are made’ she describes how changes in our bodies form one of the most important ingredients for our emotional brain to make emotions out of. To understand her research, I recommend reading her book. For the sake of this article, I will give you the abbreviated version of how our emotional brain works.

Responding with a prediction

Physiological changes in our body are important. Very important even. When our energy needs in our body changes our bodies are in imminent danger. Because if these energy needs are not adequately managed our bodies could be harmed. This process is so relevant for our brains that approximately 70% of our brain, at any given moment, is involved in monitoring these needs and responding to them. The brain is responding to these changes. It is responding with a prediction! A prediction of what to expect next. A prediction to manage our energy needs.

How we feel

A neural network is monitoring our bodily changes and distilling predictions out of these changes. With one goal only. To make sure our energy needs are met. It is important to understand that the ‘change-prediction’ cycle is ‘other than conscious’. This means that we are not consciously aware of these processes. The ‘only’ thing we experience from all of this is ‘how we feel’.

How we feel seems to be the accumulation of all these processes generalized in a word or statement. ‘I feel sh..’. ‘I am excited’. ‘I feel empowered’. ‘I feel exhausted’. ‘I feel rejected, connected, appreciated…’ and so on.

All these statements are very common statements, but we hardly ask ourselves what they mean. We say these ‘things’ as if they are real, somewhere out there. As if they exist in the world, as if they are actually real ‘out there’ in the concrete world. But they are not real in any concrete sense. They only exist inside our bodies. In how we feel when we make these statements.

The only ‘real’ reality

However, they are very real to us. So real that we are willing to break up relationships or work so hard we end up in a burn-out. Real in a sense that when you think about it, they are the only ‘real’ reality we experience.

In the end we all make the same assessment. Does something feel right, or does something feel wrong? Do I have a good feeling about something, or not? No matter how we came to these feelings. We could have made a scientific analysis and in the end have a good feeling about the result. Or we could completely intuitively decide something is right. Why? Because is feels right!

When ‘feeling right’ is wrong

My former partner was pregnant, and we both deeply felt that our unborn child would be a boy. When I shared my ‘feelings’ with her she said, ‘I feel the same!’. We were overcome with joy. Our sense of togetherness and our other than conscious prediction of the sex of our unborn. A prediction we both felt ecstatic about for some mysterious reason. And all this in a realm of mysterious energetic connection. This felt so true for us, we couldn’t even think of a girl’s name. Until our daughter was born.

We were both flexible and laughed about it. But when you think about it, most, if not all our decision making is based on how we feel about something. So how do emotions emerge? Emotions emerge depending on the quality of our prediction. When you feel great, your brain will predict great things and you could feel excited, joyful, elated. When you feel bad, your brain could predict rejection, loneliness, no success and so on.

Decision making and leadership

Understanding what you base your decisions on is a relatively new field of research. What does it take to have a vision about your company? What do you base that vision on? Fear of rejection? Driven by the desire for recognition? Success? Being the best? The same goes for your decisions, plans and strategies. Who you decide to work with and who not. The list is endless.

Understanding your decision-making process might be the most important skill a leader needs. How can you set goals without understanding your real motives? How can you be truly congruent? If you don’t know where you ‘intuitions’ come from. Are your decisions based on what is ‘in front of you’? Or based on some mismanaged emotional regulation of the past? Would your company, or society want you to make decisions on what is objectively needed? Or on emotional regulation mishaps we all suffer from? ‘Mishaps’ most of us unconsciously suffer from. Wouldn’t you want to be the best leader you were born to be? And if that isn’t the essence of leadership than nothing is. Can you learn to be the best leader you can be? Yes, you can! Feel me?!

Five pillars

So, what about the life pillars of leadership? Well understanding how our decision making comes about, you might begin to realize that all five pillars have some element of our emotional regulation system hidden within them. More about that in my next article.

Wassili Zafiris

Wassili Zafiris is IIOPM board member and has an international coaching and training institute based in the Netherlands. He has developed the RETaC method. Relation Emotion Therapy and Coaching (RETaC) is a method that uses the latest neuro-scientific research about emotional regulation applied to: relationships, emotional development, coaching and leadership. He can be contacted for RETaC certification trainings through his website:

*American Psychological Association

emotion regulation

the ability of an individual to modulate an emotion or set of emotions. Explicit emotion regulation requires conscious monitoring, using techniques such as learning to construe situations differently in order to manage them better, changing the target of an emotion (e.g., anger) in a way likely to produce a more positive outcome, and recognizing how different behaviors can be used in the service of a given emotional state. Implicit emotion regulation operates without deliberate monitoring; it modulates the intensity or duration of an emotional response without the need for awareness. Emotion regulation typically increases across the lifespan. Also called emotional regulation. 

process model of emotion regulation

a model proposing that emotion regulation may occur at two different points in the emotion-generative process: Antecedent-focused emotion regulation is evoked at the front end, or very early in the process, whereas response-focused emotion regulation occurs at the back end, or after an emotional response has been triggered. [proposed in 1998 by U.S. clinical psychologist James J. Gross]