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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

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Emotional Fluidity

The ability to move between emotional states as called for by a situation without getting “stuck” or fleeing too rapidly is termed Emotional Fluidity. Using the piano example, a fluid player is one who is limber and can play either rapidly or at a leisurely pace—whatever is called for by the score. Such a player would not get "stuck" playing a particular set of notes or a passage in a concerto.

In an emotional situation, those with emotional fluidity can get beyond the emotion of a given moment. In contrast, others will seem fixated or stuck in an emotion, perhaps seeming sluggish in their ability to respond appropriately and quickly. This may be more likely to occur with negative emotions or with emotions that are unresolved. A particular emotional state may be a familiar and comfortable place to be. However, according to Barbara Fredrickson's[8] work on positive emotions and management, being "stuck" narrows one's decision-making capability. Frustration can also arise in self or others over how long you (or others) stay in this state before trying to move on.

The implications for developing emotional fluidity are many. As you give yourself wider decision-making space, you will be able to flow with the situation or even change the dynamics of the situation. Lack of fluidity tends to dilute the ability to experience other things in one's surroundings. For example, a leader who is stuck in the frustration of a failed project may fail to generate enough enthusiasm to motivate his/her followers to pursue a new opportunity. Such is the effect of "tunnel vision," that is, when one does not see the options that are available. Others can also become frustrated with a leader who is "stuck," even if the emotion is a positive one such as hope or optimism. If the situation calls for a somber response, an overly positive reaction from a leader may be viewed as out of touch and emotionally disconnected.

Questions for Self-Assessment

1. When was the last time that you had difficulty letting go of an emotional state? What was happening; who was involved? Is this a pattern? What were the results of these situations?

2. When have you been able to move to another emotional state? What was happening, who was involved? Is there any pattern?

3. Contrast your answers to the two questions above. Can you learn anything about your patterns?

Developing Emotional Fluidity

Practice moving off of a particular emotional note such as happiness, anger or frustration—whichever makes you feel most comfortable. Notice how long you stay in a particular state. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this emotion?" "What is the trigger for this emotion?” or “Is this emotion coloring my experience?”

When you find yourself with limited options, take note of your emotional state and consciously filter it through mental review, self dialogue, or the stimulation of pictures or music. Now think of alternative options for resolving this issue.

Emotional Integration

Emotional Integration is our ability to understand how our emotions are interconnected with our thoughts, our physical well-being, and our creative expression. An orchestral piece requires integration of all the orchestra's contributing instruments. Leaving out the string or brass section leaves the audience with an incomplete understanding of the artistic merit of the composition. Similarly, leaders who miss the opportunity to see how their emotions impact their thoughts, sensations, and creativity are operating at less than full capacity.

Rational thought and emotion are inextricably linked. In his book Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio puts to rest the idea that emotions are disconnected from thinking. In fact, when brain trauma injures one's center of emotions, individuals are rendered incapable of making even the simplest decisions.[9]

Similarly, how we think about a situation impacts our emotional state. We have the capacity to create emotions from thoughts. Simply considering the range of emotions that one can experience during the day suggests that the emotions we select for attention are likely to grow.

Our language also reflects the notion that our emotions are strongly connected to our body and to physical sensations: "I have butterflies in my stomach." "She is a pain in the neck." "I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders." "I feel light as a feather." Such common expressions connect emotional states such as anxiety, frustration, dread, and being carefree with physical sensations. Many of us experience our emotions through our physical sensations before we become conscious of them at the intellectual level. Similarly, our emotional state impacts our physical well-being and our ability to recover from traumatic events and illness.



Creativity depends on our ability to make novel connections, solve unusual problems, and see beyond ordinary circumstances. While creative performance has been clearly associated with positive effect, new research suggests that a full range of emotions is important for innovation.

Recent work by Christina Ting Fong at the University of Washington found that ambivalent feelings such as simultaneously experiencing excitement and anxiety were associated with increased ability to make novel connections, thereby suggesting that emotional range may be associated with creativity.[10] Negative emotions tend to limit one's ability to see options. Thus, being stuck in the negative zone may limit a leader's ability to make sound decisions and to formulate strategic responses to novel and challenging situations.

Questions for Self-Assessment

  1. What is my body's emotional signaling system? Can I learn to use it to develop different aspects of Emotional Dynamism? Will it tell me when I am experiencing a particular emotion or when I am stuck in a pattern of response?
  2. How do I incorporate my emotions—my “gut”—into my decision-making process? Is my lack of emotional fluidity keeping me from seeing opportunities or dealing with challenges
  3. Am I aware of the flow/creative state? When is it easy for me to enter the state? What emotions keep me from entering the flow?

Developing Emotional Integration and Creativity

Developing Emotional Integration requires that the leader understand his or her patterns of emotional response. Each of us has a set of beliefs about the world that informs our reactions. Do you understand your set of beliefs? How connected are you to your physical sensations?

Take a class that helps you become more attuned to your whole self. Develop a shorthand for understanding what is happening with you physically and how it relates to your emotional state. Use your strong emotional reactions as a signal to "check-in" with what is happening around you. If you are having a strong reaction, ask yourself what is happening. Is it a trigger from your past, or a source of information from the here and now?

Leaders who are emotionally integrated see patterns in their emotional responses, are sensitive to how they respond physically to emotions, and use emotional information to inform their cognition.


The complexity and challenges of our times call for leaders to develop all of their capabilities. Emotions often seem to be a mysterious aspect of what it means to be human. Our intent has been to create a framework so that the "mystery" is replaced with an understanding of how to identify and develop one's emotional capacity. We believe that leaders who develop Emotional Dynamism will be able to leverage the power of their emotions. Like a master pianist who captures the power and majesty of a composition, an emotionally dynamic leader brings forth the "music" of the organization in all its complexity and inspires others to achieve their own potential as they contribute to the organization.

For more information on Emotional Intelligence see J.D. Mayer, P. Salovey, and D.R. Caruso. Models of Emotional Intelligence, (2000), In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of Human Intelligence, 2nd Ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press), 396-420, and D. Goleman. "Leadership that Gets Results," Harvard Business Review, (March-April, 2000, 78-92)


Terri Egan, PhD, is an associate professor of applied behavioral science and a core faculty member in the Masters of Science in Organizational Development (MSOD) program. Her award-winning research has been published in a number of journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, The Information Society, and The Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner. She is on the advisory board of the Clearinghouse for Information on Values and Ethics in Organization and Human Systems Development. Dr. Tegan and her colleagues have developed an integral model of leadership development that addresses the intellectual, emotional, physical, and creative aspects of increasing human and organizational capacity.

Ann E. Feyerherm, PhD, is Director of the Masters of Science in Organization Development (MSOD) program and chair of the organization theory and Mmnagement discipline. Previously, Dr. Feyerherm spent 11 years as a manager of organization development at Procter & Gamble. As a consultant she worked with top-level companies on projects ranging from team function to leadership development and managing change. Dr. Feyerherm's research focuses on government, business, environmental community collaboration and increasing human capacity through strength-based approaches. She is currently serving a five-year leadership position within the Organization Development and Change Division of the Academy of Management.


[8] B.L. Fredrickson. "Positive Emotions and Upward Spirals in Organizational Settings," (2003) in K. Cameron, J. Dutton, and R. Quinn (Eds.). Positive Organizational Scholarship.

[9] A. Damasio. Descartes' Error: Emotion Reason and the Human Brain, (New York: Avon Books, (1994).

[10] Tina Ting Fong. "The Effects of Emotional Ambiguity on Creativity," Academy of Management Journal, 49, no. 5 (October 2006): 1016-1030.


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



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