Leadership Test: Emotions or Facts - Pick One.

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith

POSTED ON NOVEMBER 15, 2010

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The Default Argument:

‘Reason over passion’: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
‘We may each be entitled to our own set of opinions, but we are not entitled to our own set of facts.’:US Senator Patrick Moynihan
'Just the facts, ma’am.’: Sgt Joe Friday, Dragnet (60’s TV show)

Of course, they were wrong. Almost any recent election campaign will convince you that emotional appeals – fear and anger, but others too – are far more powerful than facts. This is in no way an elitist criticism. Politicians appeal to emotion because emotions rule. The alternative is defeat, so they have no choice. They are being more logical, more factual, than their electors. And when we are all let down by the consequences of our emotional choices, we of course get angry (at someone else). Why is the media sensationalistic? D’uh.

But you know all this; it’s not new.

My question is: Why have so few private sector leaders figured it out? You don’t need to be a fear monger. You can appeal to positive emotions - ideals, selflessness, building on potential, realizing dreams - and people will vigorously respond. You can denigrate greed, champion integrity and dynamism and (if you aren’t faking it) people will get excited. Adrenalin will flow. But private sector leaders rarely do this.

Have you watched business leaders make speeches? Facts and power point slides until you want to smash your head with a brick. If emotions with no facts will make you drive off a cliff, facts with no emotions will make you want to.

We are doing succession planning at EllisDon, and I am just realizing how important it is that our next CEO understands that Trudeau, Moynihan and Sgt Friday weren’t wrong, but they were only half right.

Construction companies are full of engineers, managers, and accountants. If these people are run by emotions, buildings fall down, performance bonds get called. And yet, of course, they are – as are we all. We all want to succeed, to be recognized and respected, overcome our doubts and fears. This company can only succeed if everyone here is fully engaged - and the emotional commitment will drive more success than the intellectual one.

I have this cheesy car analogy: Facts are the chassis. They must be strong; everything else must be bolted to them. Emotions are the accelerator. Abuse them and you drive into an abutment. Engage them wisely and it’s a summer day with the top down. Ignore them and enjoy sitting in your garage in your very solid automobile.

(And if you disagree with me, I’ll put it all over the internet that people say you have a cocaine habit, and may even be even a communist.)

Thanks for reading.