Welcome back to my series on Conscious Leadership! In this series, I’m going to summarize some key principles from a book I read earlier this year: The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp. With this series, I hope to shed some light on the fast moving trend that is Conscious Leadership, and explain why you should consider integrating these 15 commitments into your existing leadership style or lifestyle, in general.

In Part 4 of the series, we are going to take a look at the third Commitment of Conscious Leadership: Emotional Literacy.

COMMITMENT THREE: Emotional Literacy

In Part 1 of this series we described the notion of Leading Above the Line or Leading Below the Line. The simple question leaders can ask themselves to determine how Consciously they are Leading is “am I leading below the line or above the line?”

For Commitment # 3: Emotional Literacy, the difference between leading above the line versus leading below the line is as follows:

Above the Line: I commit to being aware of my emotions. I commit to expressing and releasing my emotions in a healthy way.

Below the Line: I commit to resisting, judging, and apologizing for my emotions. I repress, avoid, and withhold them.

RULER for Emotional Literacy

So what is Emotional Literacy? Emotional Literacy is a preventative tool that fosters our ability to recognize, understand, and appropriately respond to emotions within ourselves. The principles of Emotional Literacy include what is called R.U.L.E.R or

  • Recognizing emotions in self and others
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
  • Labeling emotions accurately
  • Expressing emotions appropriately
  • Regulating emotions effectively

Emotional Literacy is important for a plethora of reasons. If a leader is feeling anxious or overwhelmed – if their emotional resources are being used to deal with, for example, stress or drama – it’s hard to be fully present in the workplace as a leader. Emotional literacy also enables better decision-making, positive relationships and mental wellbeing. A more modern day proponent of emotional literacy is Dr Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. In his recent three-day educational leadership series at Pymble, Dr Brackett explained how emotional intelligence (EQ) plays just as an important role in academic and lifelong success as Intelligence Quotient (IQ). It is now widely claimed that by deliberately developing emotional intelligence, workplaces can achieve important outcomes. Employees enjoy being at work more, their workplaces become places where they feel valued, and their achievements rise.

Recognizing, Understanding, and Labelling Feelings

To begin understanding emotion, let’s start with a definition. Emotions are the physical aftermath of thoughts, which start in your mind and then, through biological reactions, cause some physical sensation as output. Thus, E-motion = energy in motion, moving in and on the body. In other words, emotion are your feelings as a result of your thinking. Many of us are very far removed from the actual physical sensation of emotion, as we confuse emotion with the initial thought that caused the emotion in the first place. We sometimes say we feel sad, mad, happy, even though we would find it hard to describe what that feeling actually feels like. The emotion anger, for example, has a set of sensations tied to it. Your feelings are these sensations, there is no difference. For example, most people, when asked, “What are you feeling right now?”, will respond with something like, “I feel angry that my employee did X” or “I feel sad that my boss didn’t praise me yesterday”. Notice that even though these answers begin with the words “I feel…”, they are actual thoughts, judgements, beliefs, or opinions. They are not feelings. They are not emotions.

Learning to locate and describe these sensations are the beginning of moving from emotional literacy to emotional maturity. On that note, there are four core emotions underneath sensations. These are:

  1. Anger – Tells a leader that something needs to be changed or destroyed that is no longer of service or beneficial.
  2. Fear – Tells a leader that something important needs to be known, learned, or faced.
  3. Sadness – Tells a leader that something needs to be let go of, said goodbye to, or moved on from.
  4. Joy – Tells a leader that something needs to be celebrated, appreciated, or laughed at.

Recognizing, understanding, and labeling emotions is an important part of being a Conscious Leader and becomes easier with practicing self-awareness. For example, after some practice in locating and labeling emotion, you may notice that a tense neck is a sign you are angry or stressed. This awareness can help tremendously, especially if you are, like me, often unaware that you are even having stressful or angry thoughts in the first place and that you are putting your personal and business relationships (as well as your own health) at risk due to it. How many times do we blow up on someone for seemingly no reason? Breaking negative behavioral patterns like this can begin at the ‘thought’ level, which is outside the scope of this blog post, but can also be caught at the feeling level. The goal is to catch the feeling before you repeat negative behavior. Being aware of these sensations (or emotions) allows us to pause, be curious about ourselves, and express (flesh out) that emotion in a healthy way before they build up and potentially cause these destructive behaviors from occurring. Furthermore, once we recognize that emotions are nothing more than physical sensation, we can realize that they come and go, are neither good nor bad, and that we have little control over their occurrence.

Express Yo’Self

Just as our bodies naturally release oxygen, we need to release feelings. Unfortunately, we have been trained to keep emotions from being released, instead, holding onto them by repressing, denying, or recycling them. Repressing is very common, as most of us learned at one point or another that our feelings were not acceptable to express, and so we end up denying to others or ourselves that we are having the feeling altogether. Recycling, on the other hand, occurs when we get stuck in a cognitive/emotive loop. Constantly ruminating on certain thoughts, which then cause the resulting physical sensations to occur over and over, in a seemingly endless cycle. Instead of focusing on the body and feeling your emotions, you get stuck replaying all sorts of mental models, the energy never gets released as it is continuously being recycled. Resisting and repressing feelings is standard operating procedure in most organizations. Feelings are viewed as negative and a distraction to good decision making and leadership. This skewed outlook must be shifted if we are to be great leaders. But we can’t change what we don’t notice. Denying or avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away, nor does it lessen their impact on us, even if it’s unconscious. Noticing and naming emotions gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them.

The matter of how to “release” or express emotion in a healthy way is a far reaching topic, with thousands of books on methods for dealing with both negative thoughts and feelings. I encourage you to explore different methods of doing so in your own time, as it would be hard to consolidate all the ideas into a single blog post. Invest in yourself and your emotional literacy and I can tell you from experience, you will feel healthier and happier, and your organization and relationships will benefit accordingly.


When feelings are understood, enjoyed, released healthily, and wondered about with curiosity, they are a leader’s ally. Stop periodically throughout your day and simply ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Locate and label your feelings as one of the five core feelings. Do not analyze or judge the feeling, just accept the feeling as a physical sensation and go back to what you were doing. When a feeling arises, pause, take some deep breaths and if applicable, express your feelings in a healthy way. By doing this we can regulate our emotions, break negative behavioral patterns, and reap the many benefits of emotional literacy!

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for Part 5 of the Conscious Leadership series, where we’ll dive into Commitment 4 of the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.