Leadership and the Art of Smiling – Part 1

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Magic’s just science that we don’t yet understand” – Arthur C. Clarke

How many times have you walked into the morning’s briefing or Orders Group and could immediately see that it was going to be ‘one of those days’?  The boss was scowling, you could hear it in his/her voice and it seemed to be spreading around the room.  By the end of the meeting, everyone walked out of the room in a grumpy mood. 

But then other days, the ‘energy’ just feels right.  Everyone is laughing, that usually long meeting flies by and, for a change, so much seems to get done by the group.  Is this just your perception or is something really happening within the group and, if so, what is it and can it be deliberately initiated or is it just an accident of the moment? 

The short answer is, yes, you can make it happen and, as will be shown, a leader’s emotions and non-verbal reactions have a major impact on the unit, more so even than verbal expositions, and this effect is at least partly spread through biological responses within the group.

Our profession of arms often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, teaches the Greek philosophy of stoicism, defined as being “the quality of experiencing pain or trouble without complaining or showing your emotions”.  Or as the military philosopher Nancy Sherman succinctly put it, soldiers are taught to “suck it up” and keep their emotions to themselves. 

While this ‘suck it up’ stoicism has its uses at the right time, improperly applied it can have negative impacts over the long term on mental and physical health and a soldier’s ability to adapt.  Taken too literally, it can also impede a commander’s understanding of the true role of emotions in life and leadership. 

Emotions are not a choice or a mistake but rather a biological signal that something has happened, and action is required.  According to Aristotle, we can go from a feeling, such as a knotted stomach, to the emotion of anger, to then being spurred to act.  For Aristotle, one should not eliminate the emotion but rather recognize the signal it is sending and then use rational thought to take suitable action.  Even anger can be used to spur appropriate action.

However, emotional impact and control go beyond application to one’s self.  It plays an essential role in the ability to lead troops through the construct of positive group dynamics and management of emotional intelligence.  Take for example the Commanding Officer (CO) who, over time, notices that his/her mood at work that day has a demonstrable impact on the unit.  If he/she arrives in a good mood, it buoys the unit, whereas a negative mood does the opposite. 

Is this only a perception or is it something real and measurable?  Science clearly shows us that it is biologically real and is based on the design of the human body and brain.

Parts of our body are run on what is known as an open system, defined as one which is influenced by the systems of other humans, even in non-verbal situations.  Our limbic system is just such an open system and includes ‘control stations’, such as the hypothalamus and amygdala. 

The hypothalamus has a key role in regulating our hormonal system, blood pressure, body temperature and overall physiological equilibrium, which are influenced by internal as well as external forces, such as air temperature or threats in our environment.  The amygdala is where we then encode the resulting emotional reactions of pleasure, fear, anxiety, and anger into our memories, which influence our ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ responses.

The purpose of the limbic system in our brain is to connect what is happening in the external world around us to our internal biological realm. The world of sights, sounds, feelings, and smells are monitored by the limbic system and then our internal processes, such as body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion are brought into congruence with those external stimuli. 

Some changes are short term fluctuations, such as breathing, heart rate and sweating.  Others are long-lasting, where limbic outputs cause emotional states to influence body functions, such as immune regulation and metabolism.

Think about the following example – a soldier is out on foot patrol when suddenly she notices a man standing in the shadows, appearing to be intently watching the patrol in its approach.  This spotter has his hand in his pocket and is just standing there, watching.  This information is unconsciously relayed to the soldier’s limbic system, assessing the man’s stance, facial features, and small body movements, as well as scanning the crowd in the surrounding area to see how they are (re)acting. 

The limbic takes these immediate impressions and then sends this new data to the neocortical section of the brain. This region then instructs the soldier’s body to react and come into congruence with the threat situation; her heart rate, blood flow and sweating mechanisms increase and her sight and hearing become more alert.  In what could be a matter of seconds or less, the soldier physically and mentally changes from relaxed day patrolling to high alert for a potential attack, based on limbic reaction, with physical impacts potentially lasting days.

So how does this affect our ability to lead?  Further reinforcing the role of biology, research has shown “how emotions spread irresistibly … whenever people are near one another, even when the contact is completely nonverbal.  For example, when three strangers sit facing each other in silence for a minute or two, the one who is most emotionally expressive transmits his or her mood to the other two – without speaking a single word.” 

This has been coined ‘emotional contagion’ and defined as “a tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalization, postures and movements with those of another person’s and, consequently, to converge emotionally”.

The theory of emotional contagion has been around a long time, going back to the days of Charles Darwin (in the late 1800s), Theodor Reik (1948) and Carl Jung (1968) amongst others and its study continues today as we further our knowledge of social interaction and the human brain. 

Importantly, research puts forward that the processes of contagion and convergence are too automatic, fast and fleeting, and too omnipresent to be based on conscious perceptions and processing and that it is, therefore, a largely unconscious process enacted by the brain and not something that we can necessarily control.

Additionally, emotional contagion has been demonstrated in newborn children imitating adults, suggesting it is innate vice learned.  Through the limbic system, the brain plays a role where neurons send information between facial muscles and the hypothalamus, which then influences emotional reaction.  Thus, the passage of emotion from one person to another is not simply a matter of consciously detecting and understanding it, followed by imitation (although this is possible for the adept, as will be shown in Part 2).

Instead, emotions in others can be sensed automatically and then convergence is activated by our brains at an unconscious level.  This is a common everyday phenomenon that we all experience.  So what if you were to ask yourself a couple of simple questions – what am I feeling right now, whose emotions are influencing me, what am I unconsciously transmitting to others and is this positively or negatively influencing my team? 

The first step is realizing that emotional contagion is happening, whether or not you are aware of it (and most of the time, you aren’t) and then consciously working to move emotions in the direction desired.  The easiest way to do this, as will be shown in Part 2, is through a simple smile.  Just smile and watch what happens around you!  (No, really, just do it.)

About the author: Lisa Elliott has 30+ years in the Canadian Army, starting as a private, digging trenches, and now in the officer ranks, fighting paperwork.  She is passionate about figuring out how our brains detract from or contribute to our success and how to use this knowledge as a leadership tool. This is the first of a 2 part series.