Influential Leadership Connects the Rational to the Emotional

7 mins read

There are so many times when I think my life on social media discussing the news of the day would be so much more pleasant if other people would simply pay attention to the facts.  I can’t possibly be the only one who can read a set of data and draw reasonable, logical conclusions based on that evidence.  Why is it so hard for others to do the same?  Why are ‘they’ so blind to the truth?  Are they just selfishly digging in to a worldview that serves their interests?  Have they been co-opted into cult-like thinking because they are immature and impressionable? Are they just stupid?

The reality is that we don’t make decisions or develop beliefs and understandings about the world around us and our place in it based solely on rational data.  As an academic, I research, teach, and write about leadership.  What we have come to know in this field is that the most effective leaders use a combination of rational evidence-based arguments with a strong foundation of emotional appeals.  Imagine Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without an appeal to “the better angels of our nature” or Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. omitting any reference to having a dream about racial equality and justice as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Barack Obama had a long list of rational items to accomplish as President, but he is remembered for the resounding call of “Yes, we can!” when those aspirations may have seemed too distant.

At the core of leadership is the ability to influence others to create change.  Effective leaders realize they must use emotional appeals to motivate and inspire others to achieve the goals that will change their organization or community in positive ways.  A list of cold data setting forth an argument for change is likely to never instill the type of warm response that may be necessary for a group to unite and bring about change.

As an example, think about the data surrounding affordable health care in the United States.  Arguments that only rely on numbers of people who are without insurance, the high cost of prescription drugs, or the average premiums paid by families is not very inspiring – especially if you have insurance you can afford and don’t need regular medications or you just really don’t care about other people.  But, when leaders can connect the rational argument of providing affordable health care to as many Americans as possible with the stories of young people in this country who have died because they could no longer afford the insulin they needed to stay alive or how everyone pays higher costs because of the uninsured – that becomes an argument connecting the rational to the emotional and becomes much more persuasive towards change.

So why do some people still disagree with providing affordable health care?  Along with their equally relevant data of the extraordinary expense, they have created alternative emotional appeals, such as those surrounding self-determination and self-responsibility, that play upon American cultural myths.  They may not have as many facts on their side in terms of the cost benefits, but they have concocted a strong emotional response that speaks to a different group of people.  Some leaders do have followers who do not want to be bothered with data and can only be inspired and motivated by appeals to their basest of emotions, regardless of the veracity of the foundation.

Yet, I believe the vast majority of Americans are not ignorant or susceptible to the half-truths of disingenuous leaders.  They’re tired.  They’re just trying to make it through the week.  They’re just wanting a little peace. A little quiet.  A little space to breathe.  Spending time wading through data to make a decision – and having to determine if the data is real and accurate to begin with – is not how most Americans want to engage in the current political discourse of our country.  Nor do they want to be bombarded with negative profane rants or name-calling, which is the laziest form of emotional appeals and used far too often.

My advice to everyone who has stepped up to provide leadership for improving our communities and creating change is to consider the ways in which you can connect the rational facts of an issue with an emotional appeal.  What kinds of stories can you share that illustrate the significance, urgency, morality, or beauty of change that leads to the facts?  How can you frame those stories in positive terms that are pleasurable to read?  Even if your story can bring someone else to tears, it can still be effective and uplifting. How do you link the story and evidence to create a positive call to action for others? Don’t expect any eureka moments from those you speak to, but understand that you are laying new neural pathways of thinking and decision-making for others.  It can be a slow process, but the long term benefits will be more ingrained in the beliefs and behaviors of you and others than if you simply tried to get people to pay attention to or understand the facts.

If we only used rational data to order our lives, all children would eat their vegetables. No one would smoke.  Everyone would recycle.  Solar power would be the biggest industry on the planet.  Donald Trump would not be president.

But we don’t live according to rational data.  We need the complimentary aspect of emotional connection to be effective humans and create positive change in our world.


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