The Emotional Landscape of Leadership

Research points to six best practices that can help leaders regulate their own and their teams’ emotions.

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Carolyn Geason-Beissel/MIT SMR

Navigating a first-time leadership role often mirrors the balancing act of a tightrope walker. On one side, there’s a team seeking direction and inspiration; on the other, higher-ups are scrutinizing each decision. This journey isn’t just about taking on added responsibilities like managing teams and coordinating projects; it’s also about stepping into a heightened arena of emotions that includes joy, pride, anxiety, fear, and occasional self-doubt.

As new leaders climb the organizational hierarchy, they face both the joys of success and the burden of failure, and the significance of their decisions is magnified in their more visible role. In our research — forthcoming in the journal BMJ Leader — approximately 67% of new leaders reported feeling immense pride when their team achieved a milestone. Similarly, 72% cited joy when their guidance positively impacted a team member’s growth.

On the flip side, the pressures are evident too. About 58% of respondents confessed to experiencing anxiety when faced with critical decision-making, while almost half (49%) said they felt apprehensive about potential missteps being viewed critically by superiors. Interestingly, 53% of first-time leaders expressed occasional self-doubt, emphasizing the importance of mentorship and peer support in navigating this intricate leadership terrain.

Underlying these challenges is the essential yet often overlooked domain of emotional regulation, which stands out as a key determinant in the efficacy of leadership. Whereas an individual contributor might excel with technical prowess and domain knowledge alone, leadership mandates a heightened level of emotional intelligence — not just the capacity for personal emotional regulation but also the ability to recognize and manage the emotions of others. This emotional competency in leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping team dynamics. A leader with a high level of emotional intelligence fosters motivation, morale, and performance. In contrast, those who falter in this realm risk creating a counterproductive and potentially toxic environment, hampering creativity and impeding organizational progress.

Other skills and aptitudes are undeniably essential in leadership; however, it’s the adept handling and comprehension of emotions that delineates a flourishing leader from one who merely gets by or even stumbles. Recognizing this significant nuance and its implications for leadership development, our research team sought to bridge this knowledge gap. We employed a two-step methodology: an initial broad survey, followed by qualitative interviews.


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