Motion focuses on behaviors and actions; emotion focuses on passion and meaning.

Motion is what we do; emotion is why we do it. Motion gets things done while the leader is present; emotion sustains behavior in the leader’s absence. Leaders in motion differ from leaders who connect with emotion. The latter understand their role as what we call Meaning Makers.

For example, the United States has just experienced one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time, British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf Coast. BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, had an opportunity to be a meaning maker and to connect with people’s needs and frustrations, position his company’s response compassionately, and weave the story that would help employees and the public alike make sense of this devastation. Instead, he appeared to simply go through the motions, describing what happened and explaining the technical issues without addressing the impact that the spill had on the lives of people. In early media events he sat in a studio in a business suit and gave factual information about the spill, rationalizing that there was a shared legal responsibility for it. When Hayward took a beating from the press, President Obama and Congress, BP’s Danish chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, flew to the disaster scene to come to his aid. But the chairman threw a match on the already bungled PR efforts when he expressed his desire to help the “small people” of the area. If all of this were not bad enough, Tony Hayward returned to the UK and entered a well-publicized yacht race. Nothing like returning home to enjoy Britain’s clean ocean air and water after destroying it in America.

These leaders may have done well at yachting, but they missed the boat on the importance of emotion and meaning. As a result, they completely lost the confidence of their stakeholders and the American public, resulting in about a 40 percent drop in their stock price, to the tune of U.S. $80B. BP went from being a well-respected company in a difficult industry to a company that may struggle to keep its best employees — unless the meaning of these events can be turned and the emotional impact addressed.

Unexpected disasters happen and create leadership havoc. But, when leaders respond to the disasters by going through the motions without showing sensitivity to the emotions involved, they miss an opportunity to have an important and lasting impact.

As we wobble out of the current economic recession, many leaders are confronting a lingering emotional recession among employees and customers. Leadership is a sterile exercise when leaders go through the motions of leadership without attending to emotion, the heart and soul of those they lead. For example, leaders may dutifully complete a strategic analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) that includes detailed plans to identify and serve customers in the future. But, when these plans focus on either overly abstract aspirations (vision, mission, and values) or overly dry analytics (data laden presentations) they remain uninspiring and virtually useless.

– Dave Ulrich and Wendy Ulrich

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