Emotional Resonance And The 7 Musts For Building A Movement

Whether it’s a political or a commercial movement, as emotional beings, we try to create meaning when often it doesn’t exist–which is illustrated by how the presidential candidates are faring.

Emotional Resonance And The 7 Musts For Building A Movement

Here in the midst of the presidential election we inevitably find ourselves reflecting on the period, four years ago, when Obamamania gripped not just the U.S. but also seemingly much of the Western world. Who can forget the adoring crowds that greeted then-Senator Obama in Berlin, seeing him as something between a rock star and a messianic figure? This all seems like a far cry from the negativity of this campaign cycle.


The figure informs the movement

I’ve always been fascinated by how movements of all types form, how they are perpetuated, and the role that different groups play in the process. I’ve sought to crystalize the essential elements, conditions, and the psychology that drives what we choose to affiliate ourselves with.

The formative aspect of any movement are what I term social contracts, which occur when a group of riled-up people form a set of largely illogical beliefs as the basis of support for a politician, celebrity, sports team, or brand. Was it logical that any newly elected president could be expected to single-handedly resolve the world’s most entrenched political and economic issues with an increasingly polarized Congress? No–and yet with a kind a mass delusion we came to believe it.

In any movement there are three pivotal groups: zealots who spark the movement, disciples who perpetuate it, and the congregation who grow it. Movements that rise and then fade, or fail to reach a point of mass adoption, often do so because they cannot progress beyond the early zealots. While Obamamania was making its mass-progression in 2008, Representative Ron Paul’s campaign, while garnering unprecedented web-based support, was trapped among the zealots, who created a limiting and polarizing effect that we again saw play out in his 2012 campaign. Conversely, until his strong performance at the first debate, Governor Romney had arguably struggled to spark the requisite emotion among zealots that is the formative element for any movement.

Ultimately, the leader of a movement seeking mass adoption must themselves take on the persona of a disciple, rather than that of a zealot. Disciples have a more reasoned and inclusive voice and perspective that the congregation respond too, in contrast to the more militant and intransigent voice of a zealot.

Whether it’s a political or a commercial movement, as emotional beings, we try to create meaning when often it doesn’t exist. Today we face information and device overload and try to form our viewpoint with fewer snippets of concrete information, and are therefore more inclined to take what I term illogical leaps. Social media increasingly acts as a means to inflame our emotions and perpetuate the illogic, and has therefore become the lifeblood of any movement, as we saw during the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011.


Equally important to any movement are the signs, symbols and icons, which represent an encapsulating beacon for disciples and the congregation, the removal of which can literally undermine the emotional basis for support. Consider what happened to a Roman Legion, to Rome itself, when an eagle was lost. Indeed, one of Obamamania’s greatest assets was the iconic “rising sun” logo that has been relatively absent from bumper stickers this election cycle.

Social contracts, and therefore movements, are powered by a highly engaged and emotional group that feel they have ownership of the movement. Break the terms of the contract and they will turn on you with equal passion. Yet how do you know if you’re in danger of breaking a social contract? You don’t unless you truly understand the terms that have formed.

As a leader of a movement, business, or organization, the first job is to decode and monitor the terms of the contract that has formed with your followers, setting aside notions of how you originally expected to be perceived.

While we live in the “age of illogic” we also operate in the era of “big data,” (perhaps) better allowing organizations to be predictive of the perceptions of their constituents. More importantly, analytics can process how people think and feel, and therefore react, in real-time. Companies that purposefully use their own data consistently see huge returns in terms of marketing ROI, customer profitability, as well as being able to justify a price premium.

And increasingly the role of the leader, particularly within large organizations, has evolved to reflect this underlying emotional dynamic. Indeed, the acronym CEO today would be better described as “Chief Emotion Officer”, as leaders increasingly act as an emotional barometer for their organization. To illustrate this point, insightful work from a Duke University Fuqua School of Business study published in 2011 showed that a CEO’s voice inflection, tone, and attitude on an analyst call could predict his or her company’s future stock performance. The study used software to measure the emotions in the CEO’s voices versus their actual words, and those CEOs who resonated positive emotion saw their stock price rise, while the reverse was true for those who resonated negative emotions.


Which brings us back to the predicative and emotive power of a presidential debate where very little that is said gets processed–hence the focus on Romney’s comments around Big Bird in the first debate. The real intent is for the viewer to take a read on the emotional resonance of the candidates. And if reading this has made you think about the abilities of the leader of your organization, or even caused you to examine your own role as a leader or manager, I offer a simple test for leadership by asking these seven revealing questions:

  1. Is there one single dominant leader in practice?
  2. Does that individual inspire passion and emotional commitment?
  3. Does that individual match the profile of a disciple?
  4. Does his or her persona embody the vision, values and culture of the movement or organization?
  5. Does he or she always act in accordance with the vision, values and culture of the organization?
  6. Does he or she enable and encourage participation and engagement in the organization, from within as well as from the outside?
  7. Is the individual the best available choice to personify the company, party or brand?

If the answer to all the questions is an unequivocal yes, you likely have the right leader in place. I would also hazard a guess that whomever of the presidential candidates best matches these criteria will be the eventual victor.

“Jeremy D. Holden is an author and Chief Strategy Officer for Publicis Kaplan Thaler. His latest book is Second That Emotion.

[Image: Flickr user Don Relyea]