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Emotional Dynamism: Playing the Music of Leadership
A new framework for leveraging the power of emotions.

Terri Egan, PhD, and Ann E. Feyerherm, PhD

Graziadio Business Report, 2007, Vol. 10, Issue 2
This article is copyrighted and has been reprinted with permission from Pepperdine University

Once thought of as something to be managed, controlled, or avoided in pursuit of rational management, we now understand that emotions play a vital role in many facets of leadership. New discoveries in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology underscore the notion that emotions are the pathway to more effective decision-making, stronger interpersonal relationships, resilience in the face of stress, and enhanced creativity. This article introduces the idea of Emotional Dynamism—a new framework for understanding how a leader can leverage the power of emotions. We also include questions for assessing Emotional Dynamism and recommendations for self development.

Emotional Dynamism as the Foundation of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI) has joined IQ as one mark of a well-rounded leader. While there are many measures and conceptualizations of emotional intelligence[1] (EI as behavior, cognitive ability, part of one's personality, or self competence), there are some concepts that appear frequently. These are self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills.[2]

EI has been associated with transformational leadership capacities such as inspiration, motivation, and vision. Studies of leader EI and performance suggest that higher levels of EI are associated with higher ratings of leader performance by followers as well as with organizational effectiveness.[3]

While the "what" and the "why" of emotional intelligence have been fairly well established, the "how" has generally been neglected. This article offers a framework for how one might develop emotional intelligence through the characteristic that we call Emotional Dynamism.

Emotional Dynamism is the extent to which one can access a full range of emotions, modulate the intensity of any one emotion, move through emotional states smoothly and quickly, and integrate one's emotional state with what one is thinking, one's physical state, and one's creative capacity. The four dimensions of Emotional Dynamism are: emotional range, emotional intensity, emotional fluidity, and emotional integration.[4]

Just as the full range of a Steinway grand piano is required to bring the score of a Mozart concerto to life, so Emotional Dynamism is a precursor to the extraordinary benefits of emotions and the development of emotional intelligence[5]—you can’t enjoy the benefits of a beautiful piano concerto with a musician who can play only half of the keys, is incapable of modulating the volume through delicate or dramatic passages, repeats a refrain endlessly, and ignores the rest of the orchestra.

As with the full keyboard and the complete orchestra, each element of Emotional Dynamism has important implications for leadership. We present further definitions of each dimension of Emotional Dynamism below, along with some questions for self-assessments as well as suggestions for developing additional capacity in each area.

Emotional Range

If we consider the keys of the piano as a metaphor, range is the use of all the notes—high and low, major and minor—in our composition and playing. Those of us who have taken piano lessons know that we learned the simple songs first, ones composed of notes occurring within one octave. As we grew in ability, our compositions encompassed a greater variety and scope of the keyboard’s range of notes.

Some of us have an impoverished understanding of the range of human emotions. We understand mad, sad, and happy and are perhaps only able to report and feel comfortable with those basic emotions. This range of emotions is analogous to playing only Chopsticks. However, as our emotional sophistication grows, we can cover a wider range. The emotionally dynamic leader can access hundreds of emotions beyond the six primary emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust.[6]

Range of Leadership Emotions

Table 1

Emotional range is the ability to discern a wide range of emotions in both oneself and others and to be intentional about the expression of those emotions. By accessing our full range of emotions, we obtain valuable information about ourselves and the world in which we operate.

Compassion and empathy require that we identify with the emotions of others. If we are uncomfortable with particular emotions, we tend to avoid or deny them in ourselves, thus denying access to important information about the particular set of events, circumstances, or people that gave rise to those emotions. In addition, we cannot identify with or may seek to avoid emotions in others that we are not comfortable acknowledging within ourselves.

It is difficult to be compassionate or have empathy if we cannot "see" certain emotions. Recently, a group of managers from a large company participating in a leadership development program viewed pictures of people expressing different emotions. The managers who were uncomfortable with particular emotions were unable to see the faces of individuals expressing those emotions.

Questions for Self-Assessment

1. Which emotions are easiest for me to accept in myself and others? Make a list.

2. When have I received feedback about my empathy or lack thereof?

3. What needs do I have that are being fulfilled or frustrated?

4. How do those needs relate to my emotional range?

Developing Emotional Range

One of the frequent reasons for lack of emotional range is that we are consciously or unconsciously avoiding particular emotions. Therefore, a development activity would be to understand the basis for your avoidance. Are there situations in which you experienced an undesirable outcome when you expressed a particular emotion? Do any of the cultures that influence you (national, gender, family, professional) have sanctions against expressing particular emotions?

Another avenue of development is to explore and evoke unfamiliar emotions. We can train ourselves to recognize subtle emotions by viewing photographs and matching facial expressions with emotional states.[7] Our own emotional state is impacted by our facial expression. Try making different facial expressions and note the differences that occur in your emotional state.


Emotional Intensity

Emotional Intensity is our capacity to turn a particular emotion "up" or "down" and the degree to which our emotional response appropriately matches a situation. Think of the importance of modulating volume in a piece of music. Just as the great composers used intensity to communicate different musical intentions, our emotional intensity lets others know what is going on inside of us.

Perhaps you have worked with someone who is either "on" or "off" or goes from mild irritation to extreme anger without any warning. Such rapid transformations can be quite disconcerting for followers. Leaders lacking the ability to modulate their emotional intensity may be unpredictable and, therefore, difficult to trust.

If your volume is always low but someone else has an expanded capacity in the area of emotional intensity, you may mistake their moderate expression for a more extreme statement. The result may be miscommunication. Your sensitivity in accurately interpreting the emotional expression of others and the degree to which you respond to a situation with an appropriate level of emotional intensity is a sign of emotional stability that engenders confidence in those you lead.

Questions for Self-Assessment

1. Do I have a habitual level of emotional intensity? Am I always "on" or always "off"?

2. How long does it take before I recognize that I am in a particular emotional state?

3. Are people sometimes surprised by my emotional expression/s?

Developing Emotional Intensity

A restriction in your emotional intensity may be due to your failure to "register" internal emotional states or your reluctance to be emotionally expressive in particular situations. In some cases expressing emotions is appropriate; in other situations we are unduly restricted or delayed in our emotional expressions. Keep a log of your emotional reactions to situations. Notice when you are blocking emotions and when emotions erupt without warning.

Make a conscious choice about what to do when you recognize an emotional state in others or in yourself. With practice, develop the ability to monitor your emotional state and to match your expressions to each situation. Seek feedback from trusted others about how they experience your emotional intensity.


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[1] The concept of multiple intelligence was first outlined by H. Gardner in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, (New York: Basic Books, 1993).

[2] These four components are associated with D. Goleman's model of emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, (New York: Bantam Books, 1996).

[3] V. Druskat, G. Mount, and F. Sala (Eds.). Linking Emotional Intelligence and Performance at Work: Current Research Evidence with Individuals and Groups (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates: 2005).

[4] The concept of Emotional Dynamism was first presented by co-authors, T. Egan and A. Feyerherm, at the 2006 Western Academy of Management in a session entitled: Beyond Emotional Intelligence: The Role of Emotions in Personal and Professional Discovery.

[5] We are grateful to our colleague S. Lahl, MSOD, who first introduced us to the metaphor of a piano keyboard representing the range of human emotions.

[6] Table adapted from emotions presented in W. Parrott. Emotions in Social Psychology, (Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2001).

[7] The work of P. Ekman demonstrates that emotional range can be extended through training using photographs. For more information see P. Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, (New York: Owl Books, 2004).

This article first appeared in Graziadio Business Report, 2007, Vol. 10, Issue 2



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