Political leaders can use the power of emotions constructively
May 14, 2018
People are hardwired as both rational and emotional beings. People’s ability to acknowledge their emotions, and work to understand and manage their emotions constructively and appropriately (referred to as emotional intelligence), has much to do with their success in life. This principle applies to both individuals and groups.
Emotions are highly contagious and easily affect others. This is particularly true if the emotions are intense and have been experienced over a longer period of time. It could take quite some time before rationality, reason, and “cool heads” return.
Research done by Bloomberg in 2017 refers to South Africa as “one of the most miserable countries in the world”. This is owing to high unemployment rates, slow economic growth, high-interest rates, poor service delivery, and high consumer prices, amongst other things.
The sense of being miserable coincides with a time of political electioneering in the country, which could form part of a “perfect storm”, given how emotionally laden politics is. The emotional messages are intensified by the tone of voice, dress code, non-verbal gestures, innuendo, and language used by political leaders in speeches. Opposition parties are often referred to in derogatory terms and even as the enemy, to elicit emotions of distrust amongst potential voters.
By establishing “an enemy”, the leader elicits the powerful emotions of fear, anger, distrust, and paranoia amongst potential voters, and when such emotions are heightened enough, they could override all rationality. This kind of leadership has the potential to lead followers into chaos, as enough fear and anger can motivate people to act emotionally and irrationally.
Cambridge Analytica and Bell Pottinger are recent examples where personal and emotionally laden information was used to influence voter behaviour. Understanding which personal and emotional “triggers” can push a potential voter to choose one or the other political candidate provides a powerful way to influence the outcome of an election.
However, those in political leadership who rely primarily on stirring emotions to provide them with power may be exposed when rationality returns. In contrast, leaders who can provide voters with calmness and reason whilst acknowledging emotions, which is much more sustainable in the longer term, have a greater chance of running the country successfully.
The principles of emotional intelligence require leaders and voters to acknowledge their emotions but allow for rationality at the same time. This means that they need to recognise their own emotions and the impact that others’ emotions could have on them, while objectively analyzing information and checking the accuracy of the facts. This would allow leaders to consider the impact and consequences of a highly charged political message, and voters to distil the message and react accordingly.
However, a leadership approach anchored in rationality, calmness, and hope may not seem as charismatic as an approach based on hate, fear, and anger. In fact, those leaders who rely on the principles of emotional calmness, hope, optimism, trust, and reasonableness may have somewhat of an uphill battle in getting their message heard when competing against leaders using emotions as a tool.
Political leaders have a choice as to whether they use the power of emotions constructively or destructively. Voters also have the choice to be emotionally hijacked, or to evaluate the political messages from both an emotional and objective perspective, to determine whether the information they are provided with is accurate and true.
Selfish and corrupt leaders drive personal agendas and use their ability to emotionally manipulate to gain and retain power. On the other hand, ethical and emotionally intelligent political leaders understand and manage their own emotions and respect the emotions, feelings, and needs of others. Their empathy can inform how to best seek solutions for complex and difficult problems to ensure the sustainability and survival of their people.
In South Africa, the very difficult circumstances of the past in combination with current socio-economic hardships have led to a society where anger, despair, and despondency often flares up. The intensity of these emotions has, in some cases, led to the destruction of property and loss of life. The South African society is intensely emotional and will probably remain so at least till after the next (2019) elections.
The question is how these emotions will be used by those in positions of leadership to retain emotional political power, to gain and retain voters, and what the consequences of emotion without rationality are for the future and the reputation of the country.
To build a South Africa that is not the second most miserable country on earth, we should all expect our leaders to act with integrity and with emotional intelligence. Our success as a country and as a rainbow nation depends on it.