Using emotion as a leadership superpower

Learn how emotional control can be your leadership superpower.

Gallup, an American analytics and advisory company, has studied populations worldwide to understand their worries, fears and confidence during nearly every major crisis of the past 80 years, including the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and World War II, the Kennedy assassination, upheavals and riots in the 1960s, 9/11, the 2008 global financial crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

One thing has become clear. People look to leadership for a crisis management plan and to provide the confidence that there is a way out of any “mess”. 

In times of crisis, there are two places human nature can go: fear, helplessness and victimization or self-actualization and engagement. With the latter, if leaders have a clear path forward, human beings are amazingly resilient. 

Gallup has found four universal needs that followers have of leaders:

  • Trust
  • Compassion
  • Stability
  • Hope

Essentially, this all boils down to the importance of emotional control, a key skill leaders need to work on. Workers often look to leaders on how to behave, especially during times of turmoil and change. Therefore, leaders need to present a calm, rational persona. When leaders have high emotional control, they are seen as likeable, ethical, and working in the interest of the “whole” group.

To be in control of one’s emotions requires keeping composed during times of stress, when things are uncertain, or when faced with conflict or disagreement. This does not mean suppressing emotions, but choosing which emotions are appropriate in any given situation, and avoiding expressing extreme or negative emotions. 

Emotional control is also important during times of organizational change or when dealing with difficult employee situations. Emotional control has been associated with long-term well-being. Some people have a natural ability to control their emotions. As a leader, you can train, develop, and improve this ability over time. 

But how?

Emotional intelligence (EI) measures the level of self-awareness, social awareness and self-regulation of behavior. It also addresses the ability to remain positive and manage emotions and the needs of others in constructive ways. It means leaders are adaptive, resilient to change and can build genuine relationships with others, and solve problems. 


The first part of EI to consider is self-awareness. This is a person’s view of themselves and dictates how others see them, which is a big factor in leader effectiveness. It is a sense of confidence, a sense of knowing and having the strength to make really tough decisions and influence others.

Tip: Define who you are through your leadership values. Doing this will help you align and influence your behavior as a leader.

Awareness of others

But leadership is not self-serving. It is sacrificial. Leaders should seek to include their whole team. Leaders should engage employees by showing concern for them and their families. They are best placed to affect issues such as paid time off, flexible schedules, remote work, shared work and employee assistance programs to help provide relief during tough times.

Tip: Look for ways to identify and meet the needs of your employees. Reach out to them individually, especially direct reports. Empathize with and engage employees. When employees know that you care, they will have a greater capacity to focus on their well-being and therefore their work.

Stress management

How leaders cope with stress while having the awareness to self-regulate leadership behavior to a team is important. Finding the right balance to self-manage will help avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Tip: When dealing with unexpected changes, ensure you are emotionally fit to handle the challenges and impact of serving and meeting your employees’ needs. For example, take at least one day out of the week to rest your body, mind and soul. This will help strengthen and invigorate. In turn, you will have the necessary capacity to face most new challenges.


Adaptability reflects how well leaders integrate self-awareness, social awareness and self-management in EI. It is also a demonstration of a leader’s ability to solve problems in high-stress environments. Relating to people will help leaders cope with change and be more resilient.

Tip: Form an ad-hoc peer leadership group to meet virtually once a week to share strategies and best practices. Be sure to contribute to as well as receive ideas from the group.

For the past three years, leaders have been shouldering huge emotional burdens, buoying the declining mental health of their employees, and being sensitive to people’s anxieties. The empathy this requires is important to good leadership, but too much empathy can lead to burnout and bad decisions. This can be avoided by moving beyond empathy to the uplifting emotion of compassion. 

“Sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” are often used interchangeably, but whereas sympathy and empathy are emotions felt for and with other people, compassion goes beyond mere emotion to include the intention to really help others through any “mess”.

Learn more about ‘getting stuff done’, creating psychological safe working environments and our recent Leadership webinar – Grow up, get along and get stuff done!