• Christopher Haggarty-Weir

Leadership: Mindfulness & Emotions

In this blog post, we are going to give consideration to emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and the concept of self-efficacy, in addition to their interplay. Further, we shall consider how these ideas and emotions impact leadership and performance.

As stated in Cultural Intelligence for Leaders (2012, chapter 5), ‘Emotional intelligence speaks to the importance of self-efficacy in leadership; it points out the critical role self-efficacy has on managing one’s emotions, adaptability, and optimism’. Mindfulness on the other hand can bring about a level of creativity through self-reflection of how one acts and perceives their abilities and their surrounding environment. To engage in effective mindfulness (to in-turn positively impact one’s self-efficacy, that is, their abilities to perform), a level of repetitiveness is required with respect to the thoughts and actions utilized.

It should be mentioned that negative mindfulness (that is, constant negative reflection of repetitively experienced detrimental situations) can lead to learned helplessness (CIL, 2012, chapter 5). This can prevent a leader from engaging critical optimism to overcome challenges and plays into the idea that there is an optimal level of struggle we must experience in order to achieve our best. I like to call this the ‘Nietzschean struggle’ after German philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche, and his discussions on striving for the Übermensch (Nietzsche, 1997). Consider the graph below, where too little challenge results in a dearth of high achievement, but too much struggle (real or perceived, with the latter key to mindfulness) results in personal collapse and thus achievements unable to be met. I would argue this is a concept of the Nietzschean struggle and performance optimization can be applied to not only business, but any area of society, from parenting (not over-stressing or under-challenging your children to academically perform) to carrying out original research.

Graphing the Nietzschean Struggle

But what about emotions and how they factor in? Well, whether we like it or not, emotions are a fixed part of the human condition, and therefore will play an intertwined role in leadership. Due to the physiological power emotions can have over us (positive or negative) it is then vital to develop as much of a control over them as possible. Within the leadership context, positive emotions can serve to motive us, which can radiate outwards to fellow team members, causing a net beneficial effect and a positive feedback loop of sorts when this leads to enhance team cooperation and effective decision making (George, 2000). On the other hand, negative emotions such as anger and fear can lead to a reduction in team morale and the overall performance of the leader in question (Ilyas & Elahi, 2013). Based on this, we can generally say that it is ideal for leaders to develop a level of optimism not only for their own sake, but for the benefit of their team and the organization as a whole.

However, a caveat should be mentioned; be wary of ‘delusional optimism’, a term coined by Economics Nobel laureate (2002 prize for the impact of behaviour and human psychology on economics and decision making), Prof. Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize, 2002). Delusional optimism can be defined as is the inability (or unwillingness) to correctly assess the reality of your situation due to your personal vision being clearer or greater in your mind (Worre, 2017). Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Kahneman and co-author Dan Lovallo state ‘in its grip, managers make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, managers pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time—or to ever deliver the expected returns’; which is exactly the case in many business dealings, from mergers and acquisitions to capital budgeting projects (Lovallo & Kahneman, 2003). Therefore, I would argue that an ideal approach for a leader to take, is one of cautious optimism, fuelled by critical thinking and risk assessment. And even though there is an argument to be made that the best entrepreneurs, particularly visionary disrupters, engage in delusional optimism as a trait (this has been my experience working with tech and biotech start-up founders), trying to utilize mindfulness to incorporate some cautious critical optimism may in fact be more beneficial (Kahneman, n.d.). And as Kahneman states, it is important to try and have the right type of optimism for the right situation (Kahneman, n.d.). For example, when I carry out an investment analysis of a biotech company for a client or my own portfolio, I am more critical/pessimistic than when I am pitching my own biotech company (I was recently made the COO of SpectCell, a stem cell technology start-up in Scotland) because the direction of cash flow has changed.

So in conclusion, I would exercise a level of caution about utilizing mindfulness (avoid falling into learned helplessness, but strive for effective outcomes), and to challenge oneself with the concept of the Nietzschean struggle. Finally, aim to utilize cautious and critical optimism to achieve optimal outcomes.


Cultural Intelligence for Leaders (2012). Saylor Academy. Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0.

George, J.M. (2000). Emotions and Leadership: The Role of Emotional Intelligence. Human Relations, Iss. 53, Vol. 8, pp. 1027 – 1055.

Ilyas, S. & Elahi, A. (2013). Impact of Negative Emotions on leader’s Performance. International Journal of Engineering and Modern technology, Vol. 2, Iss. 4, pp. 27 – 34.

Kahneman, D. (n.d.). Nobel Winner: Key Trait of Entrepreneurs Is 'Delusional Optimism'. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/daniel-kahneman/idea-lab-daniel-kahneman-entrepreneurs-need-to-be-optimists.html

Lovallo, D. & Kahneman, D. (2003). Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2003/07/delusions-of-success-how-optimism-undermines-executives-decisions

Nietsche, F. (1997 ed). Thus Spake Zarathustra. Wordsworth Editions; New edition.

Nobel Prize. (2002). Daniel Kahneman: Biographical. The Nobel Prize. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/economic-sciences/2002/kahneman/biographical/

Worre, E. (2017). Delusional Optimism. Network Marketing Pro. Retrieved from https://networkmarketingpro.com/delusional-optimism/

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