What is Affective Leadership?

Why Affective? No, it’s not a typo! Affective leadership is a unique style of leading that understands the human factors that drive thoughts, emotions, and behavior, which is essential for developing effective teams. Affect, or emotion, is a key part to being human. In fact, it might be exactly what makes us human. There is predictable logic to the emotional process that drives us. Think of it like other natural laws. However, this key factor is often only a side thought, or completely ignored, in the boon of leadership advice and consultation available today. This common oversight dooms leaders to temporary situational wins, only to have their team consistently devolve back to problematic, albeit protective, patterns of interaction. Affective leadership empowers leaders to stop chasing the symptoms and to start evolving their teams, at a foundational level, into high functioning organizations.

I started thinking about the core principles of Affective Leadership when I was working as an eco-systemic family therapist in a small non-profit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This program used a unique model for understanding families and their functioning. Looking at the family as gestalt, this model of treatment understood the emotional process that drives human groups. We worked to identify dysfunctional patterns of interaction within the family and empower the leaders in the system to drive change through acting and interacting differently within their family. As I took on leadership roles within this organization, I noticed that these same psychological principles played out in the professional relationships on my team and in the office at large. I began to adapt my leadership style to based on these insights. As I became an affect-based leader my team consistently exceeded budget expectations by an average of 25% and employee retention increased by 3 times the average.  Needless to say, I was astonished by the impact of leading this way.

At the core, Affective Leadership is based in understanding that thoughts and feelings are different. Sounds simple enough, but this line is consistently blurred in management, business, and everyday life. I consistently catch my clients saying “I feel…” when they mean to say “I’m thinking...” and vice versa.  Thoughts and feeling are different phenomenon. I use a simple exercise to demonstrate the difference. First, I want you to think about a pink elephant. Got it? Only took a few seconds and you have a thought of the pink elephant. Next, I want you to feel as elated as possible. Didn’t work did it? Maybe try sad, confused, or content. It’s still not working is it? Like breathing, thoughts are something we can control as much as they can control us. Feelings, on the other hand, are something that happens to us. Like the weather, the best we can do is mange how we respond. Differentiating thoughts and feelings is much easier said than done. Problematically, our feelings often masquerade as thoughts, which leads to reactive, impulsive leadership. This style of leadership falls back onto our automatic, adaptive patterns of survival (or habits) that are all too often misinterpreted for wisdom by immature leaders. This common error leads to the most destructive leadership attributes like: blind spots, death by policy, team drama, redundant positions, and so on. Sadly, conventional strategies are to deny and avoid emotions altogether, making any positive change nearly impossible.

Affective Leadership understands the reality (and inevitability of) of the emotional process in human groups. Often, I start my coaching engagements educating my clients on the emotional process. I have done some of this above in explaining the difference between thoughts and emotions. Next, I like to point out that humans are social creatures. We are more like ants and bees, than we are like lizards and snakes. We form highly complex social structures, which are connected and guided by the emotional process. A core principle of Affective Leadership is a gem of insight I came across in the book Family Evaluation by Michael E. Kerr.  In working to understand family systems, Kerr points out that, “It is possible for the anxiety in one person to be manifested as a symptom in another.” For me, this observation changed everything. It no longer made sense to look for answers in individuals, but I started to understand them by looking eco-systemically. Much like working in a natural ecosystem, you have to be aware of how any change will ripple into the system at large. This also explains why one-off communication trainings, expensive consulting plans, and training/replacing individual members has little effect on the success of a given business over time. All of these approaches make the same mistake of not understanding the emotional process underlying human behavior.

Affective Leadership Coaching & Consulting understands the process behind the content and empowers leaders to do the same. Insight alone cannot drive change, which is why coaching emphasizes giving leaders a safe space to practice leading affectively. This style of leadership is essential for a business to evolve and grow. Affective Leadership requires a high level of courage, resolve, and vulnerability on behalf of the leader. In other words, it’s hard work!  However, leading in this way is the fastest path to mature, productive, and effective teams! 

Shawn MeredithComment