THE BLOG

The Chief Emotions Officer

04/27/2011 01:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2011

Executives execute. We don't execute people as in life and death matters (although, sadly, we do "terminate" people when they're no longer needed), but we have traditionally thought of business leaders as being emotionless technicians who just keep the trains running on time. But, timely trains didn't make Southern Pacific or Santa Fe railroads into 21st century mega-corporations. In fact, the train industry missed its chance to expand into automobiles and airplane travel by thinking of their business a little too myopically. Maybe these train executives were a little too focused on the simple execution of being on time.

While execution is still a fundamental skill of the best executives, we no longer are purely executing mechanistic, industrial organizations. In this knowledge era, execution is all about people: how to harness and inspire the potential of those we work with. And, at the heart of people are our emotions, the mysterious internal weather that either propels or penalizes us. After 24 years of being a CEO, I've come to realize that the best amongst us are truly Chief Emotions Officers as we are the "emotional thermostats" for our organizations with studies showing that a typical leader has 50-70% influence over the work climate of their team.

There are three great pieces of empirical evidence that amplify this reality about 21st century leadership. First, Daniel Goleman has shown for 15 years now that emotional intelligence (EQ) represents two-thirds of the success of business leaders as compared to only one-third coming from either IQ or the leader's transferable experience. And, yet, in 2010, less than 10% of the training and development dollars spent by America's corporations went toward emotional intelligence or literacy training (often called "soft skills"). We know it's important and, yet, we seem to be reluctant in investing in the skills to help our executives become Chief Emotions Officers.

Secondly, Dr Matthew Lieberman at UCLA has proven that labeling our emotions reduces the intensity of these emotions in such a way that it maximizes our cognitive abilities just at the time when we most need to use the prefrontal cortex of our brain for better reasoning and judgment. By being emotionally literate about what we're experiencing, executives can sidestep the 10-15 point drop in IQ that often occurs for those who are barraged by having to make decisions during times of emotional distress. So, maybe being a CEO is less about being able to predict the times of trains and more about being an internal weather forecaster.

Finally, Harvard's Nicholas Christakis, as well as a few other academics, has shown that our emotions are contagious. When we have the flu, our colleagues feel comforted that we stay at home in order not to spread the misery. Yet, when so many of us have caught the "fear" at work -- especially in economically turbulent times -- there's no sane corporate voice warning us of the risks of how our emotions can spread and threaten the well-being of those in our organizational petri dish. The ultimate inoculation for fear is a great corporate culture and companies with great cultures have healthy psycho-hygiene. In other words, their leaders are emotionally attuned to what's going on around them and they cleanse the company through transparent communication or other tactical means to help employees feel recognized and engaged.

Any executive worth their weight understands the principle of accrued interest. If you have a loan and don't pay the interest currently, it accrues and can compound and over a period of time. The cost of the interest can become staggering. This is an apt metaphor for organizational emotions that are not properly addressed in the workplace. Most companies -- led by CEO's who aren't nearly literate about their own emotions -- are actively disengaged in addressing the individual and collective emotions that are invisible predators of passion and engagement. From my own experience, I have learned the hard way. When I most have bottled up my emotions for extended periods of time, they have leaked out in other subversive ways that didn't serve my purposes as CEO. And, yet, when I was most vulnerable and authentic in my emotional communication with fellow co-workers, ironically, I was told by these colleagues that I was more admired and they felt most comfortable to be all they could be at work.