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The Dangers of Touchy-feely Leadership

Anything that seems too touchy-feely is one of the top objections to leadership coaching. Since I started my own business leadership journey 30 years ago, the understanding and science of leadership has grown exponentially. In my first agency, most executives, like myself, didn’t understand the crucial role of intangibles on business success.

I am referring to how emotional intelligence, corporate culture, positive psychology, inclusivity, vulnerability, empathy, purpose and values directly correlate to employee engagement, growth, sustainability, effective branding, productivity, motivation and innovation. In other words, most business leaders have collectively spent the last 30 years learning (the hard way) how all this touchy-feely leadership stuff is actually the fastest, most effective way to grow a business.

Touchy-feely leadership is actually the fastest, most effective way to grow a business.

The Problem with Being Touchy-Feely

There is wide disagreement about what touchy-feely really means. The definition even varies among dictionaries! It can range from physical closeness and emotional openness to relying on sentiment or intuition, especially to the exclusion of critical judgment, right up to the overt display of affection, compassion, and other tender feelings, as through hugging, crying, etc. So, when someone references “touchy-feely,” it is almost impossible to know what they mean without asking for clarification.

Additionally, touchy-feely is generally only used as a negative judgement, such as, “I don’t want this to get too touchy-feely.” There are certainly reasons this is a reasonable response, not the least of which is the inappropriateness of many forms of touching in a business setting. Some of us are just born huggers, but that doesn’t mean everyone ought to be, and certainly not without express permission. Culturally we have used physical touch as a way to minimize and disrespect another person’s professionalism in business. That is not acceptable now. Nor was it ever.

Lastly, however, the reason touchy-feely is so often referred to derogatorily is it scares many individuals a great deal – both men and women. Even in light of all we now know about effective leadership, much of our business culture still clings to the belief that the best decisions are 100% rational, and executive vulnerability is just something Brené Brown cooked up to sell more books. To those who avoid it, touchy-feely equates to irrationality, unmeasurable influences, unregulated emotions, outbursts, random decisions, and all things outside their control.

Touchy-feely scares many individuals a great deal.

This last, lingering myth about “touchy-feely leadership” is the greatest danger for a new leader learning how to operate at top effectiveness.

The Crucial Feeling Factor in Effective Leadership

I cut my professional teeth in branding and marketing, so if there is one thing I have zero doubt about it is that our decisions are emotional. All. Of. Them. Any leader who is still kidding themselves that they are only making decisions in a rational framework—or worse, that their employees and customers are—is placing severe restrictions on their growth. Our rational mind goes out and gathers data points to support our emotional decisions. And sometimes the truth of that is scary.

We don’t motivate or even innovate until we feel safe first, and subsequently, included and inspired. These feelings must be created for the actions and behaviors to follow. This is why personal and business values are a vital part of every brand, and similarly, why purpose attracts loyal customers and teams. When a leader rushes past that, dismissing it as irrelevant, distracting, or worse—a time-suck on the “business-critical” activities—they are, by default, creating vague values and purpose that generate equally vague results.

The Leadership Trait of Self-Awareness

According to a study of over 300,000 leaders, the top traits needed included:

1. Inspires and motivates others

2. Displays high integrity and honesty

3. Solves problems and analyzes issues

4. Drives for results

5. Communicates powerfully and prolifically

6. Builds relationships

7. Displays technical or professional expertise

8. Displays a strategic perspective

9. Develops others

10. Innovates

Self-awareness is foundational for all 10 of these pre-requisites to effective leadership. Not coincidentally, it is also a key attribute for high emotional intelligence. A fellow leadership coach once hypothesized that the opposite of emotional intelligence is emotional ignorance, and emotional ignorance is disempowering.

Emotional ignorance is disempowering.

If we are unwilling to recognize our full range of emotions due to our discomfort with them, then we are not fully self-aware. Emotions don’t go away because we ignore them. They go underground and do more damage like elevating stress, causing distraction, outbursts, conflict, and even health issues. So, if we are not aware of the emotions that are driving us, then we will not be managing our own decisions and behaviors effectively.

Great leaders are always monitoring and adjusting their responses and behaviors intentionally, in high awareness of their inner dynamic. Otherwise, their inner dynamic will be leading them instead.

Executive functioning is not at the expense of our feelings, it is in collaboration with them.

How Touchy-Feely Can Be Effectively Integrated

Even the most resistant leader can master the art of good touchy-feely leadership. There are a few simple steps to get started. Where you go from there is up to you:

  • Look at why you are naming something as touchy-feely in the first place. Given the common derogatory use, without judgement, ask: What does touchy-feely mean to me? And why does that make me uncomfortable (if it does)? – Congratulations! You just deepened your self-awareness and emotional intelligence in one step!

  • Give yourself the time and respect to determine your values and purpose. Be careful not to equate profit or growth with purpose. Those are an outcome, not the motivator itself. Then make those a part of your culture.

  • Learn to strengthen your self-awareness by slowing down, creating time and space for brainstorming, strategy, and creative exploration. As you do this, either individually or with your leadership team, monitor what excites you and frightens you. Both are indicators of where you have room to grow.

If you or your team are ready to create your values and purpose statement, or a breakthrough business strategy, give yourself the gift of one of my Unstoppable Leadership Workshops.


Brilliant -- as always!

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