Emotional education arround the world
The illusion of an a-emotional leader

Gabriel Jaime Vásquez Mejía
Sociologist, Ontological Coach and Emotional Intelligence Consultant
Delegate of RIEEB in Colombia

 The way we run organizations today is broken
Could we be about to invent a whole new way?

 Frederic Laloux, writer and organizational consultant


This was not just any meeting. Eduardo[1] and I had prepared for several weeks to present a proposal to develop leadership for a team of executives from Antonio Gómez’s (Vice Preseident of Human Resources) organization.

Antonio, a charismatic and thoughtful leader, greeted me cordially, as always, and I could tell by the tone of his voice the expectation he had about the proposal. The developmental package selected for the leadership of his team was emotional intelligence as a transversal axis. We had chosen this approach because Eduardo and I knew that the COVID-19 pandemic had been generating high pressure on leaders to achieve results in a context of high uncertainty that caused very tense work relationships, as well asm increased stress among employees, leaders, and their teams.

I finished my intervention and, with Eduardo, we paused to listen to Antonio. He told us at the beginning that he found the proposal interesting, but later he raised an idea that would change everything: “Our leaders are mostly engineers with a very rational managerial style. I find it very difficult for them to be interested in these issues. It would be like developing emotional intelligence in a-emotional people ”.

Concerned with his response, we began a deep conversation with him where we argued that in every relationship there is always an emotion, including leadership, so a leader could lead with indifference or apathy. However, Antonio stated that these leaders were not yet ready to move from their rational leadership style, since historically they judged themselves as "unemotional." 
Together we decided that it was necessary to modify the initial proposal and on other leadership issues with this team. We decided to redesign everything and we started running the training. The end result of the process would turn out to be a big surprise for everyone.
The conversations the leaders opened with their own initiative during the leadership training spaces.  They referred to the need to recognize their own emotions, to build trust with the teams, and to learn to listen as central criterion to move forward amid the uncertainty that this pandemic has brought.

After almost three months of leadership training, these engineers showed themselves, their emotional sides, and gave us a wonderful learning experience. From this, I was left with the idea of ​​an “a-emotional leader,” and I asked myself: Where does it come from and what sustains it? Is that possible? What can the leader gain if he judges himself as "emotional?”


Controlling emotions and avoiding emotions at all costs so that they are visible to oneself and others is probably one of the most important tasks for the a-emotional leader. This action is justified in expressing emotions as an “unprofessional” attitude for any employee, due to the belief that main difficulties and mistakes are made at work happen when the chaotic and irrelevant nature of emotions are in control. What consequently implies is that feeling and expressing emotions creates a threat to think, decide, and achieve results. "Do not get too excited," "You are too emotional," "We must consider this issue in a more rational way," are expressions that perfectly reflect the desired behavior from an a-emotional leader.

And although this seems a matter that has a very recent origin, the truth is that since ancient Greece there was already discussions about the metaphor of the master and the slave. The former represents the wisdom of reason and cognition, and the latter represents the lower and primitive nature of emotion. Later, Descartes contributed to deepen this dualism between reason-emotion when he argued that emotions confuse and cloud reason, and that a rational human being is the source of freedom, progress, and happiness. (Bisquerra, 2009)
Additionally, there has been added a long philosophical, scientific, and administrative tradition that has justified the objective nature of reason. The paradigm has had very deep roots and it’s work has been so well executed that in many organizations it is seen as the hero who manages to disguise its frustrations and keep them out of organizational conversations.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and stop your heart for about 10 seconds. Have you already done it before? Did you do it? Surely not. It sounds a bit strange to even try it, put another way, it is materially impossible. Our biology prevents us from doing it in natural living conditions because doing so would mean death.
Stoping the heart at will is equivalent to believing that emotions can be stopped. Our human biology has endowed us with a brain, particularly a limbic system, capable of adapting to the survival conditions that the environment imposes on us. If human beings had not managed to develop this adaptive capacity contained in emotion, we would be extinct as a species.
Our biological evolution has prepared the human face as a stage where emotion is the protagonist. According to Paul Ekman, a pioneer psychologist in the study of his emotions and facial expression, he suggests in his research that a human face can generate up to 10,000 expressions, each lasting between 0.5 to 4 seconds. The inevitability of emotions is there for all to see. (Ekman, 2017) 
It is impossible not to feel and not get emotional. Emotions contain valuable information to help us set goals about what is meaningful and of interest to us, direct action and accompany the rational choices we make. For example, in the face of fear the goal is to escape; In anger, to defend ourselves and to overcome obstacles, and in sadness, the goal is to seek withdrawal, reflect and ask for help. The contradictory thing about all this is that the a-emotional leader assumes that denying the existence of emotions allows us to stop feeling them as a strategy to control them. The truth is that, like it or not, emotions are there and they act and influence our decisions.


On November 2, 2020, the unthinkable happened: the fast food chain Burger King asked its customers through Twitter to also place orders at McDonalds, its great rival. The health measures taken by local authorities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic had caused the dismissal of many restaurant employees, so Burger King sought to awaken the solidarity of all. "If you want to help, start by ordering food at home," and after naming several restaurants, the twitter indicated that, "Ordering a Whopper is always the best option, but ordering a Big Mac is not so bad either" (BBC, 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a wave of solidarity, trust, and empathy in countless organizations. The reason? The consumer and society in general are increasingly sensitive to how companies are responding to the impact that the pandemic has brought and are guiding their purchasing decisions on those that best reflect the deepest values ​​of the human kind.
A survey conducted by the consulting firm Deloitte, sampling from 2,447 consumers worldwide, they indicated that 79% of those surveyed recalled situations of how a company responded positively to their needs and supported society in general by developing actions of solidarity, trust, and empathy.  "In these wild times of uncertainty, people look to brands for help and reward those who can meet their most urgent needs in the moment," (Deloitte, 2020).

Will an a-emotional leader be able to respond to this challenge? Probably not. For this reason we need to assist leaders in deepening what gives meaning to their lives, to recognize and accept that their emotions constitute them as human beings, and that they help them in their decisions to achieve the results that both they and society whole want. Those of us who have had the opportunity to open deep conversations with people in leadership roles know that they feel burdened and frustrated by the endless pressure to compete, which in turn negatively reflects on their relationships with their employees. For example, according to a 2013 survey by Gallup revealed that only 13% of employees worldwide are motivated by their work (63% are poorly motivated and 24% show active disinterest). (Laloux, 2018). In turn, the same consulting firm has found that workplaces where employees feel most unmotivated suffer almost 50% more accidents and are responsible for almost 60% more quality defects, in addition to, suffering costs of much higher medical care. (Kofman, The Revolution of Sense, 2018). Even before the arrival of COVID-19, it was already observed that high levels of stress in the workplace have led to an increase in mental illnesses. Proof of this was displayed in the most recent report by Mental Health America (MHA), an American organization dedicated to promoting mental health, indicating that during 2020 the number of people seeking help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed 93% and 62% respectively, and that more people are reporting frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm (America Health America, 2020).

On the contrary, organizations that have motivated, adopted, and developed a leadership style resonant in their organizational culture, they have shown surprising results in their global numbers. This was exemplefied by the consulting firm Great Place to Work reporting that during the first half of 2020, the Spanish organizations with the best figures in their organizational climate achieved this due to exceptional levels of trust between employees and their leaders. These results occurred when leaders took the time to communicate clearly, transparently, and regularly with their work teams (86% of respondents reported positive scores in these areas) (HR Digital, 2020).

Without question, a resonant leader, as Goleman describes it, develops an internal coherence that allows him to achieve outstanding results when he expresses his own values, attunes to the emotions of the people around him, and when he awakens passion and enthusiasm in teams. (Goleman, Boyatzis, & Mckee, 2016)

These results also coincide with the approaches of Fredy Kofman and Frederic Laloux in relation to the organizations that have emerged in recent years. Kofman describes them as "Conscious Organizations," those where the leader encourages the employee to observe himself in a virtuous and meaningful way, and where there is growth, well-being, peace, happiness of the individuals, respect, and solidarity. (Kofman, The Conscious Enterprise, 2008). For his part, Laloux argues that the types of organization that have emerged throughout human history are the result of the prevailing consciousness of the time and, because of this today, we are at the gates of a "Teal-Evolutionary Organization."  This is one that is understood as a living system that promotes relationships without hierarchies, with a set of practices that motivate the integration of the human being in all its dimensions, and with the consolidation of a purpose that serves the whole of humanity. (Laloux, 2018)

Isn't it about time to abandon this mirage of the a-emotional leader? Is this not an illusion that we must get rid of?

There is no way back. We are at the forefront of a great opportunity to evolve in the development of our emotional consciousness, and from there, create a conscious organization that opens space for an emotional leader. Anyone who hopes to seek this with others to achieve this result, in any organizational context, today needs to:

1. Work on your empathy to understand emotions, points of view of others, and choose how to respond to the needs of others.

2. Build trust to enhance collaboration.

3. Be vulnerable to ask for help and understand your own limitations.

4. Sustain your existence through a higher purpose that guides your actions.

5. Act in accordance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the third, which invites leaders to promote the development of quality of life and well-being in order to create prosperous societies (United Nations Global Compact, 2017).

And you, if you got this far in reading the article, it is because you surely care about how you lead. I want to invite you to connect with a leadership style that integrates all the richness and wisdom of your emotionality. Tell me, how do you feel?


America Health America. (September 2020). The State Of Mental Health In America.  https://www.mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america

BBC. (November 02, 2020). Coronavirus miracle: Burger King asks to buy at McDonald’s. https://www.dw.com/es/milagro-de-coronavirus-burger-king-pide-comprar-en-mcdonalds/a-55478302 

Bisquerra, R. (2009). Psicopedagogía de las emociones. Madrid: Synthesis.

Deloitte. (2020). 2021 Global Marketing Trends: Find your focus. Deloitte.

Ekman, P. (2007). Emotions revealed: Recognizing face and felins to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Holt Paperbacks.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & Mckee, A. (2013). Primal Leadership. Harvard: Harvard Business Review Press. 

Kofman, F. (2006). Conscious Business. Colorado: Sounds True, Incorporated.

Kofman, F. (2018). The Meaning Revolution. Nashville: Harper Collins.

Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations. Brussels: Nelson Parker.

United Nations Global Compact. (2017). Guide for the leadership of the sustainable development goals. A principle-based approach. United Nations.

RRHH Digital. (18 de Septiembre de 2020). Casi el 70% de los trabajadores de los Mejores Lugares para Trabar en España destacan los beneficios ofrecidos por sus empresas. Obtenido de http://www.rrhhdigital.com/secciones/compensacion/143460/index.php?id_seccion=45&id_subseccion=211

[1] The names are fiction but the story is real. 

La educación emocional en el mundo