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Why Awe Makes You a Better Leader

Knight Campbell
January 17, 2024

Awe makes us happier, healthier and better at leading people

Most of us intuitively agree on the benefits of awe: we know that gazing out on a mountain vista for a few minutes on a leadership adventure or when you’re on a solo adventure benefits us in some powerful and primordial way. It turns out that the research on awe concurs! 

In fact, some of the newest research shows that the emotion of awe may have surprisingly meaningful consequences for organizational dynamics, everyday behavior, and overall well-being.

Some immediate benefits of feeling awe

Step away from your email, meetings, and stress for a moment. Join us for a leadership adventure with like-minded business leaders to experience a moment of awe on the top of Tahquitz Peak. Sit as the sun soaks in, warming you after a long shady climb. Take in the vastness of the valley and distant mountains. Appreciate for a moment the often-overlooked emotion of awe. 

In a world where leaders are supposed to have it all together, we can feel vulnerable and strange to sit in awe. In our concrete jungles and urban bustle, it can frankly be hard to find opportunities to appreciate awe in the everyday grind. However, by ignoring the need to invest in energy management, leaders miss a low-cost, high-impact way to recharge, reconnect, gain new perspective and remember the power of gratitude.

Putting ourselves in vast and beautiful places to gain the benefits of awe is no new idea. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert landscape, and Immanuel Kant walked the city park daily like clockwork. Still, new research points to the powerful benefits of interacting with nature in a state of awe. 

Florence Williams combs through this research in detail, showing how nature can make us remarkably “happier, healthier, and more creative” in her book Nature Fix (a favorite on our reading list.)

What is awe and why should you seek it?

Awe is classified as a moral emotion and has two accompanying aspects:

a sense of vastness: something far larger in magnitude, power, or significance than normally encountered, and
a drive toward accommodation: the need to restructure personal meaning-making mechanisms to consider this vastness, either from fear, wonder, or metaphysical dissonance.

As a moral emotion, awe can have an inspirational effect, nudging a person toward thoughts and behaviors that are more positive, selfless, and holistic. It turns out the perspective of being a small part of a much larger whole makes us better decision-makers, more pro-social, more energized, and more grateful!

It seems that awe can even push us toward self-actualization. Abraham Maslow’s studies on peak experiences in which people slip into self-actualization include ego transcendence, perception of the world as beautiful and good, feeling receptive, humble, graced, and fortunate. Here are some more concrete reasons you need to make awe a regular part of your life. 

1. Make better decisions more quickly

Because awesome experiences force us to reevaluate our mental models, awe “dampens our reliance on cognitive shortcuts when making judgments.”

Seeing something amazing, like this view of Tahquitz Peak, can break us out of our habit of blindly using heuristics to get through decision-making. Research from Stanford Business School also shows that experiencing awe slows down time and forces people into the present. The mere presence of something undeniable and awesome can reduce the clutter of past regrets and future worries that often plague leaders, allowing epiphanies about clear priorities and next steps to materialize! 

You likely have had the experience of spending weeks on an important decision in your office and then suddenly gaining clarity with an aha! moment on a run in nature or sitting on your porch watching a sunset. That’s not magic. Its science! Not only does getting outside to find awe help with decisions, but it can also radically boost your innovation. Make a little more time to experience awesome places to make better decisions faster and find unique solutions!

2. Refocus on your people

Awe promotes a higher sense of belonging to social groups, likely due to a deep-seated need to band together in the face of vastness. Because awe triggers pro-social behavior, feeling more of it could encourage a leader to leave the office and walk around connecting and developing the team by fostering trust through communication with his or her followers. 

Because “awe encourages diminishment of ego and a feeling of connectedness to others”, leaders who seek out and experience awe often become more approachable to their people. This can eliminate problems like groupthink and likely helps avoid the unpleasant situation of being caught in the emperor’s new clothes! At the same time, awe can produce more cohesion and trust in your team!

3. Gain energy and momentum

Though it may seem like it, the weight of the world is not on your shoulders. When you come face to face with the unfiltered glory of ‘the world,’ that becomes abundantly clear. Unfortunately, we “expect people in upper echelons of social hierarchies to experience less awe than those in the lower strata of the same hierarchies (and thereby lose one source of meaning and motivation”(4). Researchers in Leadership Quarterly posit that leaders often purposefully inspire awe through moral and technical excellence to prompt followers to act. That sounds exhausting! Leaders need to recharge too.

Awe can be a common reaction from subordinates to a powerful, charismatic, or transformational leader (4), and that seems to help followers out. Feeling awe allows followers to file themselves into context within society, the organizational hierarchy, and goals. They can go about their day secure in their duties and relative position. Leaders have far less access to this security in their social and organizational context, and so must seek it in the presence of other awe-inspiring stimuli. Leaders have a select few places to turn to re-energize themselves, and access to the natural world is an important one.

4. Develop more gratitude and selflessness

Feeling awe can lead to higher feelings of gratitude. Why would a leader care about gratitude? Well, first it brings a feeling of peace, something leaders often lack. Research shows that gratitude also brings people together, decreasing the distance between leaders and their followers, mentors, and stakeholders. Now, wouldn’t a closer relationship with your most important people personally and professionally be rewarding for you too?

Researchers Keltner and Haidt show that “Awe can transform people, and reorient their life goals and values.” Awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.”(1)

Don’t let excuses like “too busy” or ”the inconvenient discomfort” of getting outdoors dissuade you from purposefully seeking awe in the natural world.

Time to take action

Get your team outside, or join other leaders on a weekend adventure. Find your favorite hike to a waterfall, sunrise viewing point, beach, or any other spot that calls to you. You’ll feel more energy and gratitude for all you do have. You will relate with your people more readily. And, you can spend five minutes making that important decision instead of five hours staring at an office wall all day!

References: 

1. Keltner, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual and Aesthetic Emotion. Cognition and Emotion.

2. Mikulak, A. (2015). All About Awe. Association for Psychological Studies.

3.  Rudd, M. Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological Science. 

4. Sy, T., Horton, C., & Riggio, R. (2018). Charismatic Leadership, Eliciting and Channeling Follower Emotions. The Leadership Quarterly.

5.Williams, F. (2017). The Nature Fix, Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.

6.  Shotton, B. (2013). Awe: A Doorway to Breakthroughs, Insight, and Innovation. Leader to Leader. 

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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