It wasn’t all too long ago that emotion and business were considered about as compatible as fire and water. Consider the case of Sigal Barsade, a professor of management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies subjects such as emotions in organizations and teaches it as part of the school’s executive education program.
When interviewing a bank executive early in her career, Barsade recalled asking the banker about the role of emotions in the bank. The executive responded: “Professor, we have no emotions in our bank. And if we did, we would need to get rid of them, because they’re disruptive.”
Oh, how times have changed. Spark a discussion with a business executive these days on the topic of leadership, and emotion isn’t missing from the conversation — it is the conversation.
In a September survey of business leaders, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found that mastery of technical skills — closely associated with finance, accounting, engineering or marketing — was relatively less essential for executive leaders today than it was 20 years ago. Conversely, learning adaptability, communication and multicultural- and self-awareness were viewed as vital for leaders in the current and future business environment.
In executive education programs at business schools such as Wharton, Harvard and Dartmouth, there are courses that focus on topics such as “Authentic Leadership” (Harvard), “Influence Without Authority” (Dartmouth) and “Building Relationships That Work” (Wharton).
Professors, learning practitioners and others in leadership development say the skills the market demands of today’s executives have less to do with spreadsheets and more to do with prodding employees’ emotional, motivational and behavioral tendencies. Executive education, to a notable extent, has gone soft. However, that does not mean one should confuse soft with easy.
“The soft skills are the hard skills,” said Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School. “People who master the critical leadership skills today are anything but touchy-feely — they’re direct, they’re clear, they’re compassionate, they’re no-nonsense. But they’re not soft.”