Why leader’s emotional complexity is necessary in times of strategic change

In my most recent paper on behavioural strategy* I have argued that one core competency of managers dealing with strategic decisions is to be able to consciously deal with paradoxes and ambiguities as well as the capacity to hold the tension between apparently conflicting choices. Latest research proves the need for this competency on an emotional level – emotional complexity is the key competency for leaders of strategic change in complex situations.

Rothman and Melwani (2017)** exemplify the need for emotional complexity, which means having two very different, sometimes opposing feelings at the same time or shortly one after the other.
Emotional complexity of leaders has two advantages, which are very important for strategic thinking, First it provides leaders with richer and more varied information about their environment helping them to make better and more adaptable decisions. As you can imagine, this ability is extremely important in times of a fast changing environment and disruptive innovations under high uncertainty. Second, this open and flexible attitude will empower followers to pro-actively speak up so that bottom-up change can occur. A top down a n d a bottom up process are needed for developing strategic changes – leaders with the capacity to perceive and express emotional complexity seem to be best prepared to achieve it.

One could argue that the expression of emotional complexity – experiencing and sharing contradicting demands of e.g. different stakeholders and the respective conflicting feelings associated with this – weakens the leader in the eye of the follower and might therefor be understood as rather dysfunctional. With a number of prerequisites fulfilled on both of the sides of the leader and the followers, the expression of emotional complexity will contribute positively to strategic change.

The more the leader and the follower share information and develop a shared vantage point and the more the followers know about competing tasks and organizational demands, the more the followers will cherish the sharing of emotional complexity. Consequently, they feel empowered to contribute to this difficult yet necessary change.

The leader himself might be the risk in this equation since s/he might be overwhelmed by the emotional complexity of the situation, so that s/he is not anymore capable of analysing the emotional facets of the situation. Also s/he might be too focused on reducing the feeling of tension stemming from an emotional complex situation, that he cannot benefit from a broadening perspective. Specific personality types (e.g. big five high neuroticism, low openness) would not be able to react with emotional complexity.

Yet altogether the advantages of leaders with the capacity to experience a n d express emotional complexity are greater than the disadvantages. Someone with this capacity is cognitively more flexible and emotionally better prepared to react in a mature way to complex situations with highly dilemmatic or even paradoxical choices. These choices entail the basic choice between stability and change and on more lower levels choices between profits vs purpose, exploration vs exploitation, cooperation vs competition, novelty vs usefulness, acting globally or locally.

Dealing with a paradox needs the capacities of accepting the paradox as such emotionally and cognitively, accommodating or confronting it and then differentiating and integrating the different aspects.

For all human beings – in strategy or in ordinary life – the task of life is to continuously progress through balancing, integrating, and creating new possibilities as a possible third position. The dialectical tension of the paradoxes then can lead to a creative new way of dealing with the seemingly ambivalent situation.

So it seems that emotional complexity is specifically “designed” in human beings to be able to deal with greater flexibility with complex situations that involve contraction, ambivalence, and change. So why not look for leaders with this capacity or start to develop it with them?


*Nagel, C. (2017): Behavioural Strategy and deep foundations of dynamic capabilities. Using psychodynamic concepts to better deal with uncertainty in strategic management. Global Economics and Management Review. in Press

**Rothman, N.B.; Melwani, S. (2017): Feeling mixed, ambivalent, and in flux: the social functions of emotional complexity for leaders.in Academy of Management Review, 42/2, 259-282