Exploring the Intersections of Faith and Life


The Importance of the Leader’s Attitude

I read an interesting article on the “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership”, by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis (September 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review). In it, Goleman and Boyztzis talk about a recent discovery of “mirror neurons” in our brains – neurons that pick up on what is happening in someone nearby, and mirror it in it’s “host” brain. In a way, this is not new information. We have all experienced situations where the energy and emotion of those around us seem to come over us as well. What is new is that there is finally proof that such “mirroring” is actually a real, physical process, in which we pick up on emotions in others, and our mirror neurons reproduce those same emotions in ourselves.

When we think about this in terms of leading the church through these challenging times, it reminds us that as leaders, our own emotional state has a critical impact on those around us, both positively and negatively, depending on what emotional state we are in at any given moment. Take anxiety. One of the qualities of a good leader is the ability to maintain a non-anxious presence in the midst of change, conflict, and chaos. Non-anxious doesn’t just mean hiding our anxiety from others, but truly being non-anxious. Whether we show it or not, if we are anxious, others will pick up on it, even subconsciously, and our own anxiety will be mirrored in others, adding to what is probably an already anxious system. So one of the challenges before us as leaders is the challenge of managing our own anxiety so that we can be a truly non-anxious presence.

Mirroring doesn’t happen with just the unhelpful emotions, though, it also happens with the positive ones. Scientists have found that there is a subset of these mirror neurons that are only responsible for detecting other people’s smiles and laughter, prompting the same in return. Research has also found that being in a good mood helps people process and remember information better, it aids in group formation, and it helps people respond more nimbly and creatively, especially in the midst of chaos, conflict and change.

So the emotions we bring to a situation, positive or negative, no matter how well hidden we think they are, have a real, physical effect on those around us, and can and do affect the ability of the group to respond in positive, healthy ways.

The ultimate goal is to learn how to deal with our emotions that are not helpful for a situation, in such a way that they don’t become stumbling blocks. Unfortunately this blog isn’t the place to go into that kind of depth, but there are resources out there for those who want to work on their emotional intelligence (such things as coaching, feedback session, practice, learning to relax, process feelings etc.) But before we can come up with a plan to keep them from being stumbling blocks, we need to be aware of what emotional baggage we carry with us. Without that awareness, no plan will be helpful, and without that awareness, we’ll most likely end up complicating situations and raising anxieties in others, without ever being aware of it, or intending to.

So the challenge to us to to first, be aware of what we are feeling. Second, to consider the emotional field of the group or organization we are interacting with. Third, if our emotions are ones we’d rather not see mirrored in others, we need to come up with a plan to deal with our emotions in such a way that they do not become stumbling blocks to others.

As leaders (and while this is a topic for a future blog – no matter what position you hold in an organization – you can be a leader in this, even if you don’t have the title) – as leaders, you have a huge impact on the ability of your group to be healthy, to function well, creatively, and joyfully.  What kind of an impact do YOU want to have?

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