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Author's profile photo Jason Cao

Coach’s Corner – Are You a Rock? An Island?

A friend and I had a lively debate not long ago, over the role emotions play in one’s career as a leader. (Yes, my circle of friends and I have nothing better to do.) The following recollection of our conversation is entirely biased to support my position. πŸ™‚


Photo by Winggo Tse on Unsplash

To make a point about the pitfalls of letting emotions guide our behaviours, I was forced to listen to Simon & Garfunkel’s song “I Am A Rock”:

I’ve built walls; A fortress deep and mighty; That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pains
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock I am an island
Don’t talk of love; Well I’ve heard the word before; It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock I am an island
(Lyrics by Paul Simon)

I’ll spare you from having to read the rest (although for the curious, you can listen to this song here).

The fact that this song is from the 1960s was the opportunity I was waiting for to counter my friend’s points about the benefits and importance of:

β€’ staying objective
β€’ making rational decisions
β€’ ensuring fairness

Leaders from that era were focused on managing efficiencies, transforming teams and organizations with better systems and processes. Therefore, it was only logical that emotions be taken out of the equation, and leaders (like machines) were stress-tested in similar ways. An ability to ‘manage-under-stress’ was revered as a leadership trait, and phrases like, “Never let them see you sweat!” was what great men and women leaders were capable of doing.

Times have changed. Society and employees have changed.

The biggest change in the way we lead, compared to 60 years ago when the ‘Rock’ song was released, has been at the relationship-level between leaders and their followers. “Servant leaders” are now commonplace, and demonstrate the shift in direction from followers following leaders, to leaders serving their followers. You may have heard the common realization by organizations that the “people are the most valuable asset.” Emotional intelligence (the genesis-topic of this blog series) and people skills, such as coaching, have become the staple leaders and aspiring leaders expect even before enrolling in MBA and Executive Management programmes. All 4 dimensions of emotional intelligence (Self Awareness; Self Management; Social Awareness; Relationship Management) are required, and determine how successful leaders are in building trust and confidence with they people in their direct and indirect human relationships.

We are all leaders, in our own way. Three elements that will support modern leaders well are:

  1. Vulnerability – that aspect of ourselves we’re willing to expose to others, even when there’s a risk of being harmed, shamed or judged. Admitting mistakes and speaking of what makes them feel anxious are ways leaders can demonstrate this. Leaders who still think being vulnerable makes them look weak or imperfect need to look at the research from Dr. BrenΓ© Brown who educates us on the Power of Vulnerability. Are we willing to cut out gratitude, joy, love, creativity, or acceptance from our relationships?
  2. Compassion – unlike empathy, we are going beyond intellectual or emotional understanding, to the action of kindness. Compassion connects us with each other, strengthens our relationships, and supports one another through inspiration and goodwill. A compassionate leader cares – and knows how to show it.
  3. Humanize leadership – rather than think of leadership as a science or an art, Hubert Joly, the ex-CEO of Best Buy rather us think of it as a “movement.” “We cannot be authentic and truly connect with others without deeply connecting with ourselves.” (The Heart of Business, 2021) I like the thought of the most valuable assets in our organization as heartcounts, instead of headcounts. To lead human beings, we must also be human.

I liken emotions as a warm blanket that covers us completely, and in return, we should embrace it unreservedly.

So who won the debate? We didn’t make a final judgement at the end of the day. However, based on globally accepted playground rules, blanket beats rock! πŸ˜›

Your comments are always welcomed! Check out more blog posts in this series: Coach’s Corner.


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      Author's profile photo Daniel Wroblewski
      Daniel Wroblewski

      Nice piece. A couple of ideas:

      1. I believe that what you write about gets us closer to a better way of doing things, you can't really answer the question unless you decide what is the goal: Efficiency? Humanity? Happiness?
      2. I think there is a range of thought, most starkly drawn when comparing conservatives and liberals, and it is important to understand the source of people's political/practical beliefs (i.e., fears mostly). I think this Ted lecture on the 5 pillars of moral systems tries to explain such sources of belief, and though I feel that the "conservative movement" is basically disingenuous and a product of corporate greed, I do believe many adherents embrace it for less nefarious reasons:Β The point being that I don't think we can simply say which side -- or which process -- is best without some context.
      3. It is interesting you use the idea of compassion, because as a former technical writer I think compassion is a key element of writing good document -- who is the audience? what are they going through? what might they be thinking? what do they need? This is the basis for good documentation, and most every other thing we do.
      4. While I do like the style of leadership that deals more with "empowering" there workers instead of "driving" them, I do think sometimes that management has abandoned its responsibility to lead -- meaning leading workers/people to where they might not at first want to go. Of course, this must be done humanely and with the worker's interests taken into account, but in the end it is an act of leadership.
      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for sharing your ideas, @daniel.wroblewski! πŸ™‚

      Author's profile photo Jennifer Luk-Steitz
      Jennifer Luk-Steitz

      I don't believe you are biased as you are displaying the understanding of the different needs and demands from a leader. "Times have changed. Society and employees have changed." is a very important insight. A leader will need to change his/her style to what is needed. Looking at it holistically you cannot leave out emotions. Digging deeper into history, Aristotle said "Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all."

      Blanket beats rock - but the game wouldn't be fun without the rock πŸ˜‰

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for reading the post, and your comment Jennifer Luk-Steitz! πŸ™‚

      The ability to adapt to changing needs and environments is certainly a necessary part of leading successfully. I love the quote from Aristotle! Our passion, sense of fulfillment and purpose originates from our emotions.

      Good point about the need for the rock as well, otherwise there would be no debate. If the blanket is emotions, and the rock is logic without emotions, what does the scissor represent? πŸ˜€

      Author's profile photo Jennifer Luk-Steitz
      Jennifer Luk-Steitz

      I was hesitating to state that question - now I wish I had asked it! πŸ˜€
      Maybe the scissor represent chaos, VUCA or a challenge?
      While I'm writing this I was wondering if it has to be something within the person, e.g. doubts or fears.

      What are your thoughts?

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      I think you may be on the right track with doubt, Jennifer (fear is an emotion). Thanks for giving this some thought! πŸ™‚

      Now that I have thought about this myself, I'm thinking emotion beats logic; Logic should beat bad reasoning. However, bad reasoning, like an irrational thought, can cause emotions, especially negative ones such as fear, anger, helplessness, and guilt. If bad reasoning can suppress some emotions and induce others, then can we say bad reasoning is the scissor? πŸ˜‰


      Author's profile photo Jennifer Luk-Steitz
      Jennifer Luk-Steitz

      Thanks for pointing that out and giving it more thoughts! With bad reasoning as scissor I immediately had the picture of the Judge & Saboteurs in mind.