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.

How Do They Do That?

Connection and empathy.  Photo credit:  tonyconigliophoto.com

Connection and empathy. Photo credit: tonyconigliophoto.com

Human abilities never cease to amaze me, especially when a given ability is outside my own limited set of skills and talents.  For example, I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended on it, so I am particularly impressed with those that can sing, or tell a joke for that matter.  Impressive skills though they are, I also know that I could learn to do those things, albeit poorly, if I put enough time and effort into it: I would just choose to suck with style.

However, there are other talents that I don’t think I could learn even if I tried.  For example, some people can just sense how others feel, even before walking into a room.  They don’t have to see their expressions, or really notice their postures.  They can just sense the change in energy.  I’m not like that at all:  I don’t feel others emotions, I have to use reason and take an educated guess, or ask.

The scientist in me cannot explain the ability to feel others’ emotions using traditional physiologic paradigms.    The traditional scientific interpretation is that our mirror neurons tell us on a subconscious level how others are feeling, but being able to sense moods from outside a room debunks that theory.  What is there, some kind of emotional energy receptor?

Similarly, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer recently told us in a class lecture that others can sense when we’re being present.  Not just human others, but dolphin others.  Don’t tell me that dolphin mirror neurons tell them when our shoulders are hunched or eyebrows are raised how we are feeling or where our attention is, because they can empathize by mirroring with their own…. eyebrows and shoulders?  Ellen couldn’t answer that question either.

Another talent that I think I actually have some latent skill in is connectedness.  Those with a connectedness strength know and sense that all things and events are connected.  I know connectedness, like empathy, is a real phenomenon.   I’m not as completely clueless with connection as I am with empathy, so connection is something I am starting to learn to develop.  That sense of connection to others, to the natural world, and to the flow of events also seems to be innate.  Again, is there a neuron, a hormone, or receptor that explains this phenomenon?  Or some weird synergy between the three?

I don’t really know but feel, given the pace of science and technology these days, that these questions are not beyond our ability to understand them.  The skeptical and cynical side of me would never have entertained these thoughts in the past – now I simply reflect in awe.  I also believe these are strengths that we can cultivate in ourselves and others.  I’d be foolish not to try to cultivate a strength that is pre-existing if it can help me be successful, more effective, or simply happier.  That’s a no-brainer.