Culture, Leadership, Crisis management

Leaders: How Well Do You Balance Your Head and Heart?

‘Adulting’ can be tough. We find ourselves having to juggle many things: work with play, family with friends, work with home. For leaders, this juggling act takes on a whole new level of difficulty, in trying to create and sustain a resilient organisation during times of crisis. Balancing head with heart can be the most challenging of juggling acts. How much of each should leaders express to their employees?


Some jobs constantly require a significant amount of ‘emotional expression’: nursing, hospitality and teaching, for example. This has led psychologists to use the term ‘emotional labour,’ in which there can often be a mismatch between what is outwardly offered and what is felt inside. 

Do leaders tend to do something entirely different and refrain from offering much outward expressions of emotion, although feeling a lot more inside? For a CEO, is this really the most productive approach?  Many leaders understand the importance of influencing others through developing relationships, but may not be aware of the value of having deep conversations and leading with empathy.

It is possible that for many leaders a long list of emotions are not expressed in favour of a more rational commentary, a sort of ‘emotional freeze’ whilst at work:  An uncertainty of what to express, when, and how. It is understandable and natural for leaders to exert control in crisis, but too much of this will most likely impact on the organisation’s resilience when under threat.

Make no mistake: in a crisis, it’s important for leaders to be direct, rational, and assertive about taking action. To help support and equip the organisation with a level of resilience. But the key words to hold in mind are ‘constructive expression of emotion’. I would suggest that leaders need to strike a balance between rational and direct leadership communications with the expression of emotion, leading with empathy and learning to balance effectively the heart with the head.

Expressing Your Emotions Effectively

Creating a resilient mindset within an organisation under crisis, means ensuring the level of disruption and harm employees are feeling is clearly understood by the leader. If the leader has leaned too heavily on ‘control’ then this will make having deeper conversations difficult.

Leaning too hard on ‘direct and rational’ leadership has the potential to create a psychologically unsafe workplace, in which all become exhausted from the amount of emotional labour involved in putting on a brave face. The entire organisation is masking what is felt inside and everyone becomes unclear what is actually being experienced in terms of potential threats and uncertainties.

CEOs in many organisations are delivering important messages to reassure others, in professional and calm voices, using words such as ‘measures being taken’ and how committed they are to  ‘keeping the company goals and finances on track’. This is undoubtedly crucial and needed during these times, but it can often feel like something is missing.

This makes me question: In 2020, do business leaders still find talking about their own and others emotions in their workplaces, an uncomfortable and irrelevant option? Do they find it hard to have deeper conversations with their teams. Having observed leaders speak in the last few weeks, I found myself asking the following questions..

  • Would leading with expressive emotion be too uncomfortable for them? 
  • Are they unaware of what emotions they are feeling? 
  • Do they consider their emotions inappropriate and/or irrelevant? 
  • Do they not see the value of how deepening relationships through emotional expression can help build resilience within their workforce? 
  • Do they think the most effective leaders should not express emotion or show any vulnerability in work?

Why Emotional Expression Matters

In my career as an industrial/organisational psychologist, I have spent many years coaching, supporting, and helping leaders understand how to connect and best engage with their teams and direct reports. 

Some  of these leaders have held key strategic roles in deeply embedded hierarchical structures, whilst others worked in less defined systems. However, knowing how best to convey difficult messages, how to deepen relationships from a senior level and how to trust that their teams will communicate difficult information back to them is a priority for all of them. Some of this is discussed at a systems-based level and some from the interpersonal level, from leader to team.

If employees feel that they are safe to fully express and communicate feelings, views, observations, and ideas to the most senior of leaders, without fear of criticism or rejection; then they are inhabiting a psychologically safe space at work. This will ultimately lead to better outcomes for all.

As a leader, expressing your feelings verbally and non-verbally enables you to build authentic relationships. If you do not express your emotions, you are most likely contributing to a psychologically unsafe workplace. Your teams will not feel comfortable being honest and open with you. You may miss crucial information from them at critical times (like now). 

Understanding Your Emotions

In order to be able to express emotions effectively, it helps to  understand which emotions you are experiencing and how best to describe them to others. 

Let’s also consider that:

  • Humans are capable of experiencing the same range of emotions as each other. 
  • The limbic system in the brain is similar to other mammals, we experience similar basic emotions to other animals.
  • Emotions are there to help us survive.
  • The combinations of emotions lead to other emotions  e.g. disgust + anger = contempt.
  • Emotions are ideas or constructs that help us to describe an experience to each other.
  • Each emotion can be seen as having a polar opposite; ecstasy is the opposite of grief, trust is the opposite of disgust.
  • The degree of intensity we feel determines the range of emotions i.e. pensiveness can develop into grief, interest can develop into vigilance, apprehension can move to terror

Sometimes people misunderstand what emotional expression from leaders means, simply by stating the emotion you feel can be enough. You don’t have to talk about the detail of why you have the emotion; but you could label the emotion you have experienced regarding the crisis.  

We, of course, all have different reasons for the emotions we feel, but remember, we all share the same basic emotions—all of us. Currently, we are enduring a collective experience, which is generating similar emotions in most people. Few people are devoid of these emotions at the current time.

Final Words

Current leadership research thinking suggests that a total reliance on traditional leadership skills during a crisis, leaving emotion unexpressed, will likely hinder you, your staff, and your company's overall resilience.

By creating a resilient mindset within organisations, leaders also create psychological safety. Behaviours associated with using empathy, emotional self-awareness, constructive expression of emotions, and communicating feelings and beliefs, likely lead to higher optimism, more effective stress tolerance, and overall well being. It helps to reduce the threats that employees will be experiencing.

Brilliant leaders have great problem-solving strategies, create clear focus and consistent goals, are flexible and progressive in their thinking, and can be direct, decisive and assertive. This is what your teams will also need to see and hear in order to develop the resilience, as a group, to get through this current crisis.

But firstly, remember the human element and that we have all collectively experienced a shocking and traumatic event. Your organisation, the group you are part of, will be feeling similar emotions and most likely want and need connection to feel resilient enough to get through these challenging times.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash


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