Leadership and Vulnerability

True or false: Effective leaders don’t ever show their feelings.

I’ve been around long enough to remember the days of the stoic, authoritarian CEO that leads the company into the ranks of the Fortune 500. That leader still exists and can be successful, but that is not the only type of leadership style that can be effective.   And that stoic approach has its downsides.

For example, consider emotional intelligence (EI) which involves perceiving the emotions of self and others, using emotions to facilitate thought, understanding emotions to enhance reasoning and managing emotions to facilitate growth. Though stoicism doesn’t necessarily preclude having or using EI, an EI leader will also help others manage their emotions, whether good (as in cultivating motivation and passion) or bad (helping to manage conflict or when others are discouraged).

Effectively managing the emotions of others requires that one manage, not suppress, one’s own emotions.  One approach is to give voice and validation to the feelings of others. In face of a setback, for instance, an effective leader may express their own concern and disappointment for the outcome (voice and validate), but then identify the silver lining and path forward to renew and reinvigorate the group. In this manner, the group can find closure, learn and grow from the experience together, rather than requiring that individuals find their own path out of their disappointment.

Imagine the scenario where good/bad fortune befalls the organization or one of its members. How will the group respond if the leader speaks of the event without emotion? What if the leader instead helps the group celebrate/grieve and savor/process the moment, thus prolonging/mitigating the positive/negative emotion?

I used to believe that an effective leader shows her emotion only within what is considered the acceptable middle-ish range. Consider Howard Dean, the former governor from Vermont and 2004 presidential candidate. His campaign began to lose steam after a video showed him fired up about a political or social issue to the point of screaming, considered outside the range of political decorum.

However, I’ve also seen a compassionate leader cry through an entire speech, and remain as beloved as ever. In other words, I think in the end, leaders must be authentic.   Kouzes and Posner, authors of the popular book the Leadership Challenge, state that leaders should model the way, inspire a shared vision and encourage the heart. These are not possible without being in touch with and expressing your authentic feelings, motivation and desires in a genuine way.

So go ahead. Show your soft underbelly once in a while. Leaders are only human, after all.

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