Emotional Dynamism: Playing the Music of Leadership

A new framework for leveraging the power of emotions.

2007 Volume 10 Issue 2

Once thought of as something to be managed, controlled, or avoided in pursuit of rational management, we now understand that emotions play a vital role in many facets of leadership. New discoveries in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology underscore the notion that emotions are the pathway to more effective decision-making, stronger interpersonal relationships, resilience in the face of stress, and enhanced creativity. This article introduces the idea of Emotional Dynamism-a new framework for understanding how a leader can leverage the power of emotions. We also include questions for assessing Emotional Dynamism and recommendations for self development.

Photo: Rafael Crovador

Emotional Dynamism as the Foundation of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI) has joined IQ as one mark of a well-rounded leader. While there are many measures and conceptualizations of emotional intelligence[1] (EI as behavior, cognitive ability, part of one’s personality, or self competence), there are some concepts that appear frequently. These are self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills.[2]

EI has been associated with transformational leadership capacities such as inspiration, motivation, and vision. Studies of leader EI and performance suggest that higher levels of EI are associated with higher ratings of leader performance by followers as well as with organizational effectiveness.[3]

While the “what” and the “why” of emotional intelligence have been fairly well established, the “how” has generally been neglected. This article offers a framework for how one might develop emotional intelligence through the characteristic that we call Emotional Dynamism.

Emotional Dynamism is the extent to which one can access a full range of emotions, modulate the intensity of any one emotion, move through emotional states smoothly and quickly, and integrate one’s emotional state with what one is thinking, one’s physical state, and one’s creative capacity. The four dimensions of Emotional Dynamism are: emotional range, emotional intensity, emotional fluidity, and emotional integration.[4]

Just as the full range of a Steinway grand piano is required to bring the score of a Mozart concerto to life, so Emotional Dynamism is a precursor to the extraordinary benefits of emotions and the development of emotional intelligence[5]-you can’t enjoy the benefits of a beautiful piano concerto with a musician who can play only half of the keys, is incapable of modulating the volume through delicate or dramatic passages, repeats a refrain endlessly, and ignores the rest of the orchestra.

As with the full keyboard and the complete orchestra, each element of Emotional Dynamism has important implications for leadership. We present further definitions of each dimension of Emotional Dynamism below, along with some questions for self-assessments as well as suggestions for developing additional capacity in each area.

Emotional Range

If we consider the keys of the piano as a metaphor, range is the use of all the notes-high and low, major and minor-in our composition and playing. Those of us who have taken piano lessons know that we learned the simple songs first, ones composed of notes occurring within one octave. As we grew in ability, our compositions encompassed a greater variety and scope of the keyboard’s range of notes.

Some of us have an impoverished understanding of the range of human emotions. We understand mad, sad, and happy and are perhaps only able to report and feel comfortable with those basic emotions. This range of emotions is analogous to playing only Chopsticks. However, as our emotional sophistication grows, we can cover a wider range. The emotionally dynamic leader can access hundreds of emotions beyond the six primary emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust.[6]

Range of Leadership Emotions

Emotional range is the ability to discern a wide range of emotions in both oneself and others and to be intentional about the expression of those emotions. By accessing our full range of emotions, we obtain valuable information about ourselves and the world in which we operate.

Compassion and empathy require that we identify with the emotions of others. If we are uncomfortable with particular emotions, we tend to avoid or deny them in ourselves, thus denying access to important information about the particular set of events, circumstances, or people that gave rise to those emotions. In addition, we cannot identify with or may seek to avoid emotions in others that we are not comfortable acknowledging within ourselves.

It is difficult to be compassionate or have empathy if we cannot “see” certain emotions. Recently, a group of managers from a large company participating in a leadership development program viewed pictures of people expressing different emotions. The managers who were uncomfortable with particular emotions were unable to see the faces of individuals expressing those emotions.

Questions for Self-Assessment

  1. Which emotions are easiest for me to accept in myself and others? Make a list.
  2. When have I received feedback about my empathy or lack thereof?
  3. What needs do I have that are being fulfilled or frustrated?
  4. How do those needs relate to my emotional range?

Developing Emotional Range

One of the frequent reasons for lack of emotional range is that we are consciously or unconsciously avoiding particular emotions. Therefore, a development activity would be to understand the basis for your avoidance. Are there situations in which you experienced an undesirable outcome when you expressed a particular emotion? Do any of the cultures that influence you (national, gender, family, professional) have sanctions against expressing particular emotions?

Another avenue of development is to explore and evoke unfamiliar emotions. We can train ourselves to recognize subtle emotions by viewing photographs and matching facial expressions with emotional states.[7] Our own emotional state is impacted by our facial expression. Try making different facial expressions and note the differences that occur in your emotional state.

Emotional Intensity

Emotional Intensity is our capacity to turn a particular emotion “up” or “down” and the degree to which our emotional response appropriately matches a situation. Think of the importance of modulating volume in a piece of music. Just as the great composers used intensity to communicate different musical intentions, our emotional intensity lets others know what is going on inside of us.

Perhaps you have worked with someone who is either “on” or “off” or goes from mild irritation to extreme anger without any warning. Such rapid transformations can be quite disconcerting for followers. Leaders lacking the ability to modulate their emotional intensity may be unpredictable and, therefore, difficult to trust.

If your volume is always low but someone else has an expanded capacity in the area of emotional intensity, you may mistake their moderate expression for a more extreme statement. The result may be miscommunication. Your sensitivity in accurately interpreting the emotional expression of others and the degree to which you respond to a situation with an appropriate level of emotional intensity is a sign of emotional stability that engenders confidence in those you lead.

Questions for Self-Assessment

  1. Do I have a habitual level of emotional intensity? Am I always “on” or always “off”?
  2. How long does it take before I recognize that I am in a particular emotional state?
  3. Are people sometimes surprised by my emotional expression/s?

Developing Emotional Intensity

A restriction in your emotional intensity may be due to your failure to “register” internal emotional states or your reluctance to be emotionally expressive in particular situations. In some cases expressing emotions is appropriate; in other situations we are unduly restricted or delayed in our emotional expressions. Keep a log of your emotional reactions to situations. Notice when you are blocking emotions and when emotions erupt without warning.

Make a conscious choice about what to do when you recognize an emotional state in others or in yourself. With practice, develop the ability to monitor your emotional state and to match your expressions to each situation. Seek feedback from trusted others about how they experience your emotional intensity.

Photo: Hannah Boettcher

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.

Photo: Photojynic


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)

[1] The concept of multiple intelligence was first outlined by H. Gardner in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, (New York: Basic Books, 1993).

[2] These four components are associated with D. Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence. See Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, (New York: Bantam Books, 1996).

[3] V. Druskat, G. Mount, and F. Sala (Eds.). Linking Emotional Intelligence and Performance at Work: Current Research Evidence with Individuals and Groups (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates: 2005).

[4] The concept of Emotional Dynamism was first presented by co-authors, T. Egan and A. Feyerherm, at the 2006 Western Academy of Management in a session entitled: Beyond Emotional Intelligence: The Role of Emotions in Personal and Professional Discovery.

[5] We are grateful to our colleague S. Lahl, MSOD, who first introduced us to the metaphor of a piano keyboard representing the range of human emotions. [6] Table adapted from emotions presented in W. Parrott. Emotions in Social Psychology, (Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2001).

[7] The work of P. Ekman demonstrates that emotional range can be extended through training using photographs. For more information see P. Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, (New York: Owl Books, 2004).

[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.

About the Author(s)

Terri D. Egan, PhD, is Academic Director of Pepperdine University's top ranked Masters of Science in Organization Development (MSOD) program and Associate Professor of Applied Behavioral Sciences at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. She has taught graduate and executive courses in personal development, leadership, team effectiveness, organizational change and development, creativity and innovation and international organization development. Her award winning research has been published in a number of journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, Journal of Public Administration, The Information Society, Human Relations, and the Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner. Dr. Egan’s current research and practice focuses on integrating neuroscience discoveries into organization and leadership development theory and practice. She is the co-founder of Lahl and Egan, LLC (www.lahlandegan.com). She holds an interdisciplinary degree in Social Sciences, an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior all from the University of California, Irvine and is a guild certified practitioner of the Feldenkrais® Method of Somatic Education.

Ann 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.

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