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Lead with the power of emotional appeal

Peel away your mask, especially if you want to make your mark in the corporate world, where everyone is expected to wear a facade of some kind.

6 min read



“I’ve learned that people will forget what you say. They’ll forget what you do. But they will never forget how you make them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou

With 25 years on Wall Street, it’s a blessing to have received words of wisdom from some titans of global finance. However, the best leadership advice I ever received didn’t originate from a board room or a trading floor, but from the late, great poet Maya Angelou.

In a world obsessed with IQ and “the smartest guy in the room,” Angelou’s words speak to a different category of intelligence that lives inside of all of us; the emotional kind. They give credence to the adage that, “IQ gets you hired, EQ gets you promoted.” They tap into the inner leader in all of us and serve as a guide for how to inspire, persuade, and provoke change.

The problem is, very few at the executive level are taught such a simple foundation of effective leadership. How often have you heard from someone you are trying to persuade, “I’m not feeling it!” We are so focused on the hard skills and are often at a loss to connect with others in a way that is rooted in biology. As humans we feel first, we think second. However, many present the facts, bang the colleague or client over the head, and ignore the soft skills critical to maximize success.

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When using emotional appeal to provoke an action, ask yourself what you are trying to convey: pride, hope, compassion. Or is it fear, anger, reverence? Consider your message and the response you want to elicit from your employees. Your words and manner should reflect the feelings you are trying to activate inside another’s heart and mind. When moving others to your cause, don’t substitute emotional appeal completely for evidence and/or reasoning. Build your persuasive arguments around some degree of logic, but also seek to achieve the impossible by weaving emotion into that same appeal.

In order to make an audience feel your emotions, give them some part of yourself that is authentic and real. Peel away your mask, especially if you want to make your mark in the corporate world, where everyone is expected to wear a facade of some kind. Then show them who is behind the veil.

I encourage my clients to think like a medieval knight. During the Middle Ages, when knights jousted, they wore helmets covering their faces. At the competition’s start, dueling knights would lift up their visors and expose their faces to the crowds. This method gave birth to our modern-day military salute, in which we raise our hands above our eyebrows. But its effect was to show onlookers who the man behind the mask is.

The most successful leaders are those who can remove their masks. They show who they really are and relate to colleagues by revealing their humanity. And how do you do that? One of the ways is to share your failures. Revealing vulnerabilities is an effective way to strip away your mask and help people understand that you’re just like them. You’ve had challenges. You’ve tried things. You’ve failed. Nothing more emotional than that. If you can help a colleague see you as a regular Joe or Jane who faced challenges, overcame them, and found success, you increase the chances to make a personal and lasting emotional connection.

For a master class in how lead with emotion, watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement address. It’s one of the most moving and effective pieces of leadership I’ve ever seen. He gave the graduating class a great piece of advice and said, “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, if today were the last day on my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Jobs’ call to action at the end of his speech was equally interesting. He said, “When I was younger I got great advice. Be foolish.” And by that, he meant, “be foolish and be hungry.”

He showed vulnerability, which was palpable and powerful. He was reminding us about the importance of asking questions when you don’t know the answers. He talked about how hunger and foolishness often lead to inquisitiveness and how that yields drive, building qualities and intangibles inside of us that are so important that we can’t even measure them. He talked about emotion on two different levels; inside ourselves and how we lead others.

Jobs’ leadership tactics were straightforward. The smartest guy in the room didn’t lead in facts and figures. He did so with simplicity, energy and, above all, emotion. When you integrate those three qualities — nothing is lost. You colleagues can absorb all of it, and the ideas behind your leadership style will stick. It’s a great formula for inspiring and moving others closer to your cause.

For many who lead, there is often a tug-of-war that is fought between their minds and their hearts. They feel one thing, but their minds tell them to do another. Many leaders start with the mind and try to get to people’s hearts. I encourage my clients to do the opposite. Reach people’s hearts first, and their minds will inevitably follow. Thank you, Maya, for such powerful words of wisdom.


Chuck Garcia is the author of “A CLIMB TO THE TOP: Communication & Leadership Tactics to Take Your Career to New Heights.” He is the founder of Climb Leadership Consulting and a professor of organizational leadership at Mercy College.

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