Leadership with a Smile Managing Our Emotions as a Tool of Enacting Leadership

Young business people having meeting at modern office

By Marian Iszatt-White

Practicing leaders often have to manage their emotions as part of enacting their leadership role: whilst we all do this as part of our everyday lives, for leaders it can be an important “tool of the trade”. So how do they perform the “emotional labour” this entails and still feel authentic as leaders?


More than Just “Service with a Smile”

We are all familiar with the kind of fake “service with a smile” which is a common feature of many of our commercial interactions today. The McDonald’s server, the airline cabin crew and the hospital nurse are all required to show particular emotions and suppress others as a routine part of their work. But the need to abide by professional “display rules” – and to use their emotions as a tool of getting the job done – is also an inseparable part of the work of professional managers and organisational leaders. Motivating staff, disciplining under-performers, appearing confident in times of uncertainty and change, and controlling personal feelings which would otherwise intrude upon our professional persona are all part of the everyday lives of those of us who occupy such roles. And whereas the “emotional labour”1 of service workers is often formulaic and relatively superficial – a series of brief encounters – for leaders it is likely to be far more complex and to require a greater degree of judgement and engagement. The more ongoing relations, the wider variety of desired outcomes, and the more complex nature of leadership work per se, all contribute to making professional emotional labour a much more challenging beast than its service sector counterpart.2


“To Thine Own Self be True…”3

At the same time, we are hearing constantly of the need for leaders and managers to be “authentic” as the antidote to the numerous examples of individual unethical behaviour and corporate scandal which are constantly being presented to us by the media. Authentic leaders are said to be “transparent about their intentions and [to] strive to maintain a seamless link between espoused values, behaviours and actions”.4 This raises the question of how individual leaders and managers “square the circle” between the need to perform emotional labour as a routine part of their jobs, and the requirement to both feel and appear authentic.

So how do practicing leaders experience the potential tensions arising from these very different demands of their leadership roles? And what strategies can we all employ for keeping an authentic sense of self when called upon to perform emotional labour in the enactment of our own leadership and management roles? Much of my research in the last 10 years has involved asking a range of leaders – middle and senior managers, public and private sector, male and female – exactly these questions. Their answers have been most enlightening – and often surprising.

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About the Author

Dr. Marian Iszatt-White is Director of Doctoral Programmes at Lancaster University Management School and a lecturer in Leadership and Management. Her research centres around the accomplishment of leadership as a day-to-day practice and she is the Editor of Leadership as emotional labour: Management and the ‘managed heart’ (Routledge, 2012 – recently reissued in paperback). She has also co-authored a leadership textbook (Leadership – published by OUP in 2014, second edition due out March 2017) aimed at countering the Western bias in much of the leadership literature.

1. Hochschild, A. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
2. Iszatt-White, M. (editor) (2012) Leadership as Emotional Labour: Management and the ‘Managed Heart’. Routledge. (Reissued in paperback September 2016).
3. Laertes, Act 1, Scene 3, Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
4. Luthans, F and Avolio, BJ (2003) Authentic leadership: A positive development approach. In K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton and R.E. Quinn (eds) Positive Organisational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. (pp 241-261).



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