Last week, the world lost a brilliant professor, and I lost a beloved colleague and friend.
Sigal Barsade was a major reason why I came to Wharton. She believed that good enough was never good enough. She spent her life aiming for the best—not only for herself, but for everyone else too. She redefined my standards of excellence, care, and integrity.
As a scholar of organizational behavior, Sigal often described her life’s work as exploring “everything that can’t be explained by rationality.” Her pioneering research taught me that emotions belong at work; moods often spread from one person to another; it only takes one friend to avoid loneliness; and teams perform better when they show care, affection, and yes, even love.
For a decade, Nancy Rothbard, Samir Nurmohamed, and I had the privilege of teaching leadership and teamwork with Sigal. She mesmerized leaders by teaching them to read micro-expressions of contempt on colleagues’ faces and showing them how emotions could even be contagious among rocket scientists. She encouraged students to apply her wisdom to every element of their lives by opening up about her own life. A whole generation of MBAs learned emotion regulation skills through her story about how she helped her husband manage his road rage. “This is a full-service class,” she’d quip, smiling as laughter rippled through the room.
Sigal never hesitated to stand up for her values and risk her popularity for her principles. She challenged students to make ethical decisions and open doors for disadvantaged groups. Watching her in action gave me the confidence to teach emotional intelligence to skeptical audiences and the courage to speak out against disrespect in toxic cultures.
As a mentor, Sigal spent countless hours helping her proteges at all hours (often after midnight and even occasionally before 10am). Her generosity extended far beyond her own students. I’ll never forget the time when she heard about a fire in an undergraduate dorm room, and invited the student—a complete stranger—to stay at her house.
As a colleague and friend, there was nothing too big to ask of Sigal and no detail too small to matter to her. She remembered our food allergies and ordered special meals to accommodate. She once re-listened to an entire podcast episode just to give me feedback. When my wife Allison and I needed a babysitter, she recruited her own daughter (who is still our kids’ most-requested visitor).
Sigal constantly showed compassion for others. It was no surprise to learn that she had cofounded a children’s museum in her spare time and regularly donated to a foundation for blind donkeys. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor just over a year ago, Sigal continued to co-chair a task force on the role of behavioral science in preventing the spread of Covid and checked in regularly to see how our colleagues, our students, and my family was doing. Last month when I went to say goodbye, the tumor had progressed to the point that it was difficult for Sigal to speak. That didn’t stop her from thinking of others. Her last words to me weren’t about her, but about our family: “give my love to Allison.”
Sigal elevated the intelligence (both emotional and cognitive) in every room. She cared deeply and thought deeply. I will miss her deeply.
To learn more about Sigal’s work and life: