The Emotional Balancing Act

The ability to remain clear-headed during stressful situations allows leaders to have extraordinary careers, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

I see my old friend, Larry Brilliant, as a prime example of an emotionally intelligent leader. Larry is an epidemiologist who worked in the World Health Organization’s successful smallpox eradication program. Larry was the first head of, that organization’s philanthropic arm, and founding president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, with a mission to fight threats to humanity like pandemics, droughts, and nuclear arms.

Can you imagine if Larry got easily triggered by fear of illness, or was rattled by panicking crowds? Such kneejerk reactions can send people toward safer professions, even if they have a high IQ.

Larry’s ability to maintain emotional balance has enabled him to have an extraordinary career. He has dedicated much of his life to helping those in need, but has also launched a variety of business ventures, all while raising three children with his wife and professional colleague, Girija.

Emotional balance—also referred to as emotional self-control in my model of emotional intelligence—is the ability to remain calm and clear-headed during a stressful situation or crisis. This not only allows leaders to manage their emotions, but also spreads their calm to those they lead. A calm leader is especially vital in a crisis.

Cognitive research shows that disturbing emotional reactions hinder our ability to focus and make good decisions. The key player here is the amygdala, circuitry in the emotional centers that constantly scan for threats in our environment. If the amygdala perceives a threat (even if a symbolic one) these circuits can hijack the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s executive center—and trigger our fight or flight response. That shuts down the thinking brain for the time being and so disrupts our ability to think clearly, let alone manage our emotions.

But some circuits in the prefrontal cortex can inhibit the amygdala—just say “no”—helping us stay cool and calm despite tense circumstances. And like the other EI competencies, we can strengthen this neural pathway.

Emotional balance isn’t only necessary for high-stakes situations. Leaders with strengths in emotional balance can handle stressful situations—like a budget cut or demanding client—with ease.  And managing our emotions in a healthy way creates better outcomes in our work and personal lives.

To cultivate emotional balance, we need a solid foundation of emotional self-awareness. We can boost this by tuning in to our emotions and practicing self-reflection, ideally on a daily basis. An accurate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses is essential to self-awareness.

Another way to help strengthen emotional balance: improve resilience. Technically, ‘resilience’ refers to the time it takes to recover from an amygdala hijack. While we can’t control what triggers us, we can learn to better recognize and manage our emotional reactions so we regain balance quickly. To practice this, notice your emotional triggers over the course of the day. Get into the habit of writing them down every evening. Over time, you'll start to catch your response to triggers as they happen. Such mindful awareness of triggers makes it far easier to remain clear-headed in a difficult situation. A daily meditation habit can also help.

Emotional balance won't make you a modern-day hero, but it might just help you be more effective as a leader.