Dec
22

There’s no crying in leadership

by  William Powell  |  Leadership Development

I recently had a discussion around what was considered appropriate and inappropriate in leadership. There were a number of things brought up and most were simple enough, but one topic emerged that truly bothered me. It was the subject of crying in leadership. The suggestion was made that it was inappropriate to cry if you’re in a position of leadership and all of the references were made to men in leadership.

I challenged this by asking if it would be viewed the same if women in the same place of leadership would be viewed as equally inappropriate if they were to cry. The answer was a cleverly crafted “no”, but a “no” nonetheless. This disturbed me to a large degree. At the time I politely disagreed and let the conversation continue. I wanted to spend some time thinking about why this bothered me to such an extent.

If it’s fair to ask, “What is the prevailing thinking about a leader who cries openly?” I thought it was fair to also ask, “What is the prevailing thinking about a leader who laughs openly?” Are we judging leaders by the existence of certain emotions? In being a leader, are we not permitted to experience a particular emotion?

The fact that this was made a gender issue made me a little sick in my gut. It was like an archaic and misconstrued understanding of masculinity was being perpetuated. A distorted perspective that says masculine strength doesn’t cry is nothing short of absurd. The implication to say that it’s okay to cry because of femininity, yet it’s a sign of weakness for men because of our masculinity is appalling. It subversively places women beneath men as weaker. Less. Rubbish!

As long as an expression of ANY emotion does not genuinely diminish the efficacy of your leadership, then be who you are. It is that authenticity that will make you a better leader. People will see you as a real person, not some distant figurehead.

The idea of reducing certain emotions to gender based roles is a complete lack of leadership and understanding of the human condition. Emotions are an element of our humanity. When we begin asking for less than human qualities in a leader, the result will be less than human results from that leader. I say live your life passionately and be a leader that is an expression of who you are. That is where greatness begins in leadership.

How have you seen great leadership exemplified through the expression of emotion?

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What People Are Saying

Jane Perdue  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

William —

Every leader (regardless of gender) I’ve encountered whom I would describe as great displayed emotions. They let the team know — tactfully, professionally and with care — when they were angry, pleased, sad, perplexed, etc. We’re not robots and will give our all for the leader who knows who to use their heart to lead. Emotions have a very real and needed place in the work place.

Jane

p.s. I wonder if those who can’t condone a tear are OK with shouting.

William Powell  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

So true Jane. People connect on a much deeper level with leaders who appear real and human to them. Thanks so much for your input!

Cheers,
William

Sonia Di Maulo  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

William!

A great, thought-provoking post! “Emotions in the workplace” is a tough subject for me as well. In my entire career the unspoken rule has been to keep emotions in check, keep it together, and show strength/control by being emotionally absent. Being too happy, too sad, too angry, or too vocal is seen as “too much” and not appropriate. At least this is the message I have received, and this for both men and woman.

Some questions that I have been exploring: Should there be a difference in how we exhibit emotions in a professional context versus a personal context? In other words, should we exhibit the same emotions at work as we do at home? Should we start breaking down these silos?

I love this and I quote: “As long as an expression of ANY emotion does not genuinely diminish the efficacy of your leadership, then be who you are. It is that authenticity that will make you a better leader.” A GREAT guiding principle!
And Jane’s comment: “Emotions have a very real and needed place in the work place.” I agree!

As leaders, I think the question is not whether to be emotional, but rather to encourage emotion, and to encourage people to be real and authentic in their communications and actions. This is what makes a workplace a great place to work, and a leader a great person to follow!

Sonia

William Powell  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Thank you for being so vulnerable in sharing your struggles Sonia. It’s something I see time and again with my organizational clients and individual clients alike. Self-leadership is where it starts and that will govern how act at home or at work.

Thanks so much for sharing your insight!

Cheers,
William

Tanveer Naseer  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Hi William,

There was a study done recently that wanted to figure out why humans cry, what’s the real value or purpose behind this physiological response to an emotional state. I discussed the study and its findings in terms of business in my piece “What Does Crying Have To Do With Business?”. Essentially what the researchers found was that, in the absense of tears being shed, the viewer easily confuses what the person exhibiting the emotion is trying to say.

As we all know, one of the keystones of good leadership is being able to communicate clearly, both in terms of what you say and in what you hear from listening to others. As this study shows, the shedding of tears is not so much a sign of weakness as it is a means to ensuring effective communication, of people being able to express exactly what they’re thinking and yes, even feeling.

If we expect to lead people by stirring their emotions to compel a sense of connectedness and shared purpose, we need to understand the same applies to leaders, both men and women, and how they communicate with their team.

William Powell  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Thank you for sharing your blog and the findings of this study, Tanveer.

I love how crying is shown as a means of communicating the true emotion being felt and how suppressing those tears can send mixed messages. Thank you so much for your contribution!

Cheers,
William

Georgia Feiste  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

I loved the comments as much as the post! I remember the first time our company President cried (many years ago) – I was shocked (yes, it was a man) and felt great compassion for him as I realized how human he was (rather than the robot everyone said he was). This was a great lesson for a young supervisor to learn, and to carry forward in her career. I would love to see men and women stop struggling to hide behind the “professional” facade that is often demanded in company cultures.

William Powell  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Absolutely Georgia! Thanks for sharing a real example of this being well received by others.

Cheers,
William

Donna  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

I love this post , it is an open minded article about how emotions affect leadership to the extent that some are describing crying as a weakness of the leader but deep inside it’s just self expression and nothing is wrong about it.

William Powell  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Thanks for your contribution Donna. Very well said!

Cheers,
William

Mandy Vavrinak  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

William,

Thanks for not just taking a bold “all crying is OK!” stand here… I agree that emotion is part of who we are as humans and therefore as leaders and should be welcome in the workplace to the extent that it helps communicate (so many things!). I also feel strongly that we, as leaders, set examples in tone and attitude and should check emotional displays that do NOT contribute to communicating on some level who we are, what we’re about, etc. Everyone has bad days… I don’t like to bring my bad day with me to the office (a short trip for me as I work from my home!) and I don’t like it when others do, either. It’s a distraction for everyone and reduces focus on There are exceptions, of course… serious events happen to all of us at one time or another and there’s not always a way to separate what we’re going through from our work life.

Definitely an issue worth discussing!

William Powell  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Thanks so much for your perspective Mandy (enjoyed your post yesterday BTW). As with all things, balance and wisdom must rule the day. Being authentic to who you are doesn’t mean you should embellish unnecessarily…agreed.

Cheers,
William

Sonia Di Maulo  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Mandy,

I really enjoyed your comment as it reflects my current area of reflection… to emote, how and when! Emotion has a time and place, or does it, should it? I believe this “how” needs to be spelled out through guiding principles around communication and feedback. Individual preferences need to be identified and respected, awareness of others emotional states is critical but most importantly a strategy is required so that all this authentic communication impacts the workplace positively and influences performance.

The three of us should connect to continue to explore this very intriguing topic!

Sonia

Tristan Bishop  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Hi William,

Many mocked it, but a young man from around my neck of the woods named Tim Tebow led his team (the Florida Gators football team) from a genuine place. This included expressions of joy, frustration and even sorrow. This particular speech, after a tough loss, includes genuine sorrow and even a tear or two: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sGv2Zw-WQw

But the emotion it captured the attention of the nation and the hearts of the team. They didn’t lose again, and finished as national champions. So apparently, a male leader can “cry” with positive results, provided he also is willing to back up the remorse with commitment and determination.

Tristan

William Powell  |  22 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Great example Tristan. Although I’m an OSU Buckeyes fan, I’m happy to give you a little slack and latitude for the sake of proving a point! Tim Tebow’s speech was inspiring indeed.

Emotion and leadership is having an understanding of what is merited in the moment and balancing that with the potential tension of where you are emotionally about that moment.

Thanks for contributing Tristan!

Cheers,
William

Claire Boyles  |  23 Dec 2010  |  Reply

I’ve thought about this long and hard over the last few years, should there be crying in Leadership? Why do we expect our leaders to be perfect, before we are willing to follow. True strength of a leader lies in finding the way through adversity & being human, not in avoiding & hiding it…

For me a leader that has honesty & integrity and asks for help when needed- now THAT’s a person I’ll follow until the end..

William Powell  |  26 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Very true Claire. Perfection is atypical of the human condition. We definitely need more human leaders.

Mike Henry  |  23 Dec 2010  |  Reply

William,

Thanks for addressing this issue. It seems there is a large double-standard in the gender world that needs to be addressed. The only problem is, everyone is automatically on one side or the other. Objectivity seems to be very difficult to obtain. Maybe we should start a group for Emotional Men in Leadership. We could get a wristband and maybe have some posters drawn up!

Let me know if you start that group any time soon… :-)

Mike…

William Powell  |  26 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Love the ideas Mike! I think the underlying problem isn’t being emotional or not as a man, it’s a poor understanding (or definition) of masculinity. That comes through in how we lead as men (parenting, work, community involvement) and how we allow ourselves to have fun.

I would like to tease out the ideas you mentioned. We should talk soon!

Cheers,
William

Steven Gonzalez  |  23 Dec 2010  |  Reply

William –

I truly believe showing emotion – showing your human side – is what distinguishes good leadership from bad leadership. I don’t buy into the whole… “It’s a business and therefore, I can’t show any emotion…” To me, that is just a way to distant yourself (as a leader) from the situation/decision. Does that mean that the Business Environment should be void of any emotions? Anger, Joy, Happiness…

I do believe, as Mandy articulated so well in her comment… “I also feel strongly that we, as leaders, set examples in tone and attitude and should check emotional displays that do NOT contribute to communicating on some level who we are, what we’re about, etc…” that being over emotional is not what we are talking about here.

The only way to build trust is through vulnerability…demonstrating your human.

Thanks William for your insight

William Powell  |  26 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Very well put Steven. I think you nailed when you made the distinction between being emotional and over emotional. An either/or proposition doesn’t exactly fit in with emotions.

Cheers,
William

Mary C Schaefer  |  26 Dec 2010  |  Reply
William Powell  |  26 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Yes Mary! Showing your emotions is an integrity issue. Love that. I have given a keynote where I was so passionate about the subject that I literally had to stop for a second to swallow a few times because I became a bit emotional. It was that integrity that actually made the point so much better than my words.

It also gave permission for others to allow their emotions to be a little more transparent and some did. It was probably one of my favorite keynotes to date.

Thanks for sharing!
William

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