Trying to separate family from business is not always possible, whereas embracing the high emotional complexity that comes with running a family business might be a more beneficial approach. Leadership styles need to evolve and adapt to the new generations, and leading by example could be the key to success. In this episode of our WiFB Conversations, Amy Katz and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss the role of emotions in leadership positions.

This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Amy Katz, founder of coaching-business Daughters in Charge.

Photo by csliaw on Pixabay


R: Today we’ve decided to talk about managing emotions when you are in a leadership role. Amy, when you suggested this topic, you mentioned it is very often the case that women are asked to leave emotions out of their leadership styles, whereas we often see that the opposite might be a beneficial approach. Tell us more about your experience with the role of emotions in leadership positions.

A: Men and women are dealing with emotions all the time, no matter where they are – be it at home or work, in a leadership or a follower position. I think separating the two is challenging, but women in family businesses are often told that they need to leave emotions out or that they shouldn’t pay so much attention to what employees are saying and feeling. And yet, I think now is the time when leaders who are able to bring emotions and feelings into the workplace can make an important contribution.

We’ve seen that a bit with Sheryl Sandberg and her writings about grief. She can turn that into policy and provide a good model. But I think in family businesses, in part because feelings are so much tied to early experiences as well as to professional experiences, the emotional load is a bit greater. Managing one’s feelings about a relative while also giving feedback or making a decision with a non-family member is just a heavier load to manage.

R: I think we should take a step back here and remember why, in early family business literature and discussions, we started saying that we needed to leave emotions out of it. It was because emotion, initially, was identified as one of the main disturbances or obstacles to effective decision-making or fair treatment of non-family members. It was often the main enabler of nepotism if you will, and the main reason for conflict. A lot of this conflict has a strong emotional nature in family businesses and very little to do with whatever assets are being fought over. Rather, the conflict is a matter of vengeance for whatever hurt has been caused in private.

I think it’s quite natural that the family business recommendation has for years been, “You should avoid emotions in family business,” or, “Try to separate family from business.” But we may have gone a little bit too far in that direction. Anyone in a family business will confirm that, in their day-to-day activities, it’s absolutely impossible to separate family and business. To be quite frank, spending your time on that is quite futile and a waste of energy, as opposed to just facing the high emotional complexity that comes with a family running or owning a business. Just facing up to it can be much more beneficial for both the family and the business.

Amy, why do you think we’re talking much more about the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership roles within a family business today? Why has that conversation suddenly emerged so strongly?

A: I think part of it has to do with conversations about the workplace itself. And that may be prompted by more women in the workplace or by men who are seeking to explore their more vulnerable side or the joys of spending more time with their children. The whole work ethic concept has been broadened to include the capacity to enjoy your life more holistically. Pleasure and meaning at work and all the wonderful advantages beyond monetary compensation have just become a way of saying, “How do I get gratification in my life? Where is my community?” We’re also seeing some faith communities diminishing in terms of their importance, while the workplace community is rising in importance.

The workplace has a hold on people, even those who are working from home, because they’re creating their own communities. Work, as part of our human experience, has just gained more prominence, and with that, there has been greater attention paid to our human experience. That being said, on a more practical level, I think we’re saying something that has been said for many years: engaging people at work is important in terms of the general results and outcomes. It has all kinds of measures now associated with it, which we were not taking as seriously before. The thought about sensitivity to oneself as a leader and to one’s employees has always been there but, for a variety of reasons, it’s assuming greater importance now.

R: The reasons you mentioned are spot-on. This is what we see as employers and employees. The search for purpose has shifted towards the workplace, and it’s a bigger philosophical discussion as to whether or not that’s a healthy thing. The notion that this is going to lead to more balanced lives may be questionable. It might be a result of there being less healthy family structures than there used to be, so maybe it’s not necessarily a positive trigger that has caused this need for family-like environments in the workplace.

This brings along the expectation of leaders with the same high emotional intelligence that we expect parents to have with their children. What we’ve experienced a lot is the demand to not just lead the company but also provide a role model of stability for employees in terms of their own personality. This is a challenge for a leader. These days, you are extremely visible and much more accessible than you used to be in the past. The hierarchies are less steep, so the expectation of accessibility and open-door policies is constant.

It has come to the point where being a leader has become a draining experience. You have to continuously make sure that you’re emotionally in charge and ready to give to the workplace as much as you would at home. There is a sense of meaning and purpose that is much more linked to the workplace than it used to be.

The question is about how the future of work looks. What is going to be the impact on the kind of people who make it into leadership roles? Are we going to see a change in the typical profile of a leader? Are there going to be different characteristics that will make people rise to the top, whereas 20 or 30 years ago, they never would have made it past a certain level?

A: I think there have always been different kinds of leaders. Some people are highly structured, while some are very disciplined and effective. Some people are able to accomplish similar ends, but they do it through the means of connection and listening. I don’t think it’s necessarily a gender-based divide, but I do think the capacity to do it is fundamental. It is important for a leader to understand and accept that employees may be talking more about their personal lives or needing time and space and to adopt policies to meet these needs while not being critical.

People can be that way in their 70s or be stricter when they’re new to managing, so I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but it surely is an ability to say, “Things have changed I’m going to change with them.” That may mean giving up some strongly-held notions about what the workplace needs to be, and that’s the personality trait or capacity for flexibility and adaptation that is going to be most important.

R: Within the family business discussion of leadership, there’s always been a difference between dealing with a founding leader and a next-gen leader. The founder of a company tends to be very emotionally involved in many people’s lives – especially those who have been working with them for a long time and have an extreme emotional attachment to the running of everything. The next generation is confronted with the fact that we were trying to scale. Leadership styles need to change, and that’s just a fact.

As much as we like to emphasise that everything has to stay human and accessible, once a company reaches a certain size, there are standard rules that have to come in to play in order for it to remain fair. It takes a very different type of personality to do the founding of the company as opposed to the running or scaling-up of a company. This is also a challenge of leadership in the family business. The founder tends to be romanticised because they built the company and the wealth. It’s often hard for the next generation to come in and introduce a different way of doing things.

When you talk to other women through your work, how do they put their leadership styles forward in the family business? What is a common challenge that they feel is the most insurmountable?

A: To boil it down to the most common, I would say most next-gens appreciate that they need to be change agents. They understand that they represent not just the next generation of the family, but also the next generation of the company itself. As in most situations in life, they are not going to be running the same company. The market has changed, the world has changed, and technology has changed. The founder who understands the unique contributions that next-gens of either gender can bring and allows them to help shape the next generation of the company can make a true contribution to it being a success.

For women, it’s a double whammy. Just by assuming a leadership role, they are already a symbol of change. That may take some adjustment in the kinds of conversations people have or the surprise they have when a woman definitively says “yes” or “no” to something. Just by their position and gender, they are already signifying something is different. That can be an advantage. I think that any woman who takes on a leadership role is making a statement that something is new before she even opens her mouth.

Back to the emotional turmoil or heightened sensitivity to the people around you, this can come from the fact that you are working with family. A common term from emotional intelligence literature is “triggers” – having your amygdala hijacked and, all of a sudden, acting in ways in which, at times, you hardly recognise yourself. That’s where the potential challenging role for people in family businesses can come from. What I’ve seen in some situations is that the intensity of the relationships among family members can be so great it results in productivity loss for the company because people are talking about the family all the time.

It’s almost like they’re living in a parallel universe where there are a stage and spectators, and somehow business gets done. Letting go of that or trying to include the non-family contributors is a gift both to the family and to the employees because there is some relief from that intensity. That’s not to say that this intensity is always there because there are many examples of family businesses where things work quite well and people appreciate each other’s contributions.

R: Even in that incredibly lucky case though, no business family doesn’t encounter conflict. Everybody invariably has these moments and slips into a more emotional tone. Whether you’re a man or a woman, young or old, leading through example is still the most efficient way to be consistently successful. It’s a very tedious thing to do because you have to catch yourself to ensure your expectations of other family members or employees are expectations that you would live up to as well.

It may be an old-fashioned way of doing things, but I found that to be the most democratic and efficient way of maintaining credibility towards employees while gaining respect from other leaders and family members. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the whole leadership discussion today, with a huge amount of talk about attributes, what a leader does in the morning, what they have for breakfast and other Psychology 101 approaches to explaining leadership. But at the end of the day, being a good leader is a non-glamorous and very hard job. It means being the first one at the office and the last one to leave most of the time. It’s making sure that whatever you’re asking of other people, you’re also willing and able to deliver.

It’s astounding how, in business education in the family business field, we still don’t emphasise that there’s no way around doing the hard work. There’s no way around leading by example, and it’s a very non-sexy approach. It’s not very fancy and doesn’t have a lot of instant jargon involved with it, but it’s still the most consistent way to gain traction.

A: There is something about effective leadership, and whether one is a man or a woman, leading by example is a value to strive for. I once had a supervisor tell me it’s okay to fall apart; you just need to do it later. I always found that very helpful. The same is true for people in leadership roles without emotions, but when you can be open to employees’ observations and feedback, that gives you a clue as to when you might be a little off course. That requires a negotiation between the style of the employees and the style of the leader to help both manage that emotional boundary where it’s comfortable, so that the work gets done.

R: Thank you very much, Amy, for another lovely conversation. We’ll be back in another week with a new episode.

About Amy Katz and Daughters in Charge: Amy Katz Daughters in Charge

Amy Katz is an executive coach and social psychologist whose business, Daughters in Charge, focuses exclusively on supporting women in family businesses.  She is the author of Daughters in Charge: Learning to Lead in Your Family’s Business.