When Leaders Cry

by  Chip Bell  |  Leadership Development
When Leaders Cry

“Doors!” the sound tech’s voice boomed. And hundreds of employees poured into the giant hotel ballroom. Room lights dimmed as the spotlights bathed the massive stage revealing a colorful, themed background. Sounding like the voice of God, the sound tech again spoke: “Ladies and gentlemen, the CEO of Acme Manufacturing, Jan Topdog.”

The CEO, carefully scripted through a teleprompter and supported by dazzling slides, gave the financial history and the projected goals. The scene was a carbon copy of a gazillion other big deal meetings held in hundreds of ballrooms around the world. But, this one was different.

Without warning the CEO moved beyond the teleprompter to the edge of the stage. The speech changed from one of pragmatism to one of passion. As the CEO began to talk about the power of the company’s vision and the value of every employee, big tears began to fall to the stage floor. Overflowing emotion necessitated several long pauses to regain composure. As the CEO completed the final sentence there was a long silence. The audience sat overwhelmed by what they had just witnessed. Then, they leapt to their feet for an awkwardly long standing ovation. Even the “way too serious” contract sound techs were on their feet!

It was not the tears that moved this audience. It was the CEO’s courage to be unabashedly authentic—to be publicly real. Whether the emotion displayed is anger, compassion, pain, or joy, the authenticity of leaders changes the nature of the connection and invites a valued link with others.

Leaders too often associate their mantle of authority with a requirement for detachment. “I don’t care if my employees like me,” the swashbuckling ruler announces, “I just want them to respect me.” Such a view is often a preamble to emotional distance and calculated encounters. The headlong pursuit of aloofness as the expression of authority invites employee evasiveness, not employee enthusiasm. It triggers reserve, not respect. An open door policy is not about a piece of furniture. It is about an attitude of vulnerability.

Organizations populated by genuine leaders have more than their share of employee engagement and cutting edge breakthroughs. Turnover is lower because employees value an environment free of passive aggressive game playing, cynicism and suspicion. Customers are loyal longer because they trust what they experience. Suppliers give such organizations better breaks because they view encounters as long-term investments, not short-term transactions.

Real Leaders Don’t Wear Rank

Combat troops are generally much better behaved in the field (where battle is likely to occur) than in the relative safety of the rear area. As an infantry unit commander in Viet Nam, I often wondered if it was related to the fact that military leaders remove markings of rank while in the field. Enemy snipers always seek to get battlefield leaders in their crosshairs to strip their adversary of command. This left the concept of “leadership” less related to obvious authority and more with subtle influence. It also took the focus off of “whom” and placed it squarely on “what.” Those officers who resorted to barking orders in a desperate attempt to signal rank often found their edicts sabotaged or circumvented by adroit foot soldiers skilled at deception.

I invited a fellow consultant to assist me with a long term client’s group of senior executives. She had heard me repeatedly rave about the CEO of this high-tech company. Her flight was delayed and the meeting was underway when she arrived, preventing me from introducing her to the audience. After listening to the group in a lengthy, spirited dialogue over a strategic challenge, she whispered to me, “Which one is the CEO?” It was the highest compliment I could have bestowed on a leader fond of saying, “Never add any more leadership than is needed.” Leaders without rank busy themselves with the business of mission and course, not might and conceit.

Real Leaders Care about Spirit

“This is the best work I have ever done in my life,” said a colleague who had just completed a very difficult consulting project. What I witnessed was not the pride in his voice, but the lump in his throat and the emotion in his eyes. Chores extract toil but causes unearth spirit. Real leaders care less about toil and more about spirit. They see spirit as a light that can easily go dim and view their role as helping associates keep the rheostat turned up. They do this by constantly reminding them of the cause and by personally demonstrating passion about that cause.

“Just like great service to customers, great leadership comes through creating a remarkable experience for associates,” wrote management consultant John Patterson. Real leaders know that if they constantly give employees their very best enthusiasm, zeal will be the frequent response.

Real Leaders Invite Passion

“You are JC Penney,” said the new CEO, Marvin Ellison, at their recent store managers’ conference. “Your customers and your associates will know they matter when you approach every encounter with them with the enthusiasm of a warrior.” The words come from a man renowned for his passion for the employees and customers at Home Depot and Target before being appointed CEO of JC Penney. Real leaders look for ways to add value “to every encounter.” Instead of shouting an order, they inspire with a story. Instead of learning about customer experiences from a sterile survey, they find out face-to-face and ear-to-ear. Instead of being quick to blame, they assume the best and avoid assumptions. They are myth-averse, preferring to unearth the facts not rely on insinuations. And, their “up close and personal” approach attracts passion for those around them.

“There is more to ‘turning lemons into lemonade’ than just a positive effort,” says Dallas-based motivational speaker Ed Foreman. “Lemons take very little energy, but lemonade is a creation you have to work at.” When Foreman was scheduled to do an all-day workshop at an invitation-only event in Scotland, he arrived only to learn the sponsor had been unable to enlist a single participant. “Don’t worry,” the sponsor told Foreman. “We’ll pay your daily fee and expenses; you can take the day off.” “Not a chance,” responded Foreman. “We’re going to call on your customers together and get as many as we can to enlist in your next training event.” The sponsor learned a great lesson as Foreman’s passion turned customer resistance into customers registered.

Margery Williams’s Velveteen Rabbit is a children’s book many parents have shared as a bedtime fairy-tale. The dialogue between the wise skin horse and naive rabbit contains great lessons for leaders. “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse to the rabbit. “It’s a thing that happens to you….It doesn’t happen all at once, you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.” Realness comes through promoting others, not on preening self.

Have you been led by an authentic leader? What made them real to you?
Photo Credit: Fotolia Olaru Radian

About The Author

Articles By chip-bell
Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and has served as a consultant to some of the world’s most famous brands. He has authored twenty books including “The 9 1⁄2 Principles of Innovative Service.” His newest book, “Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experience Through Innovative Service,” was released in February 2015.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  17 Jun 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Chip:

Thanks for an entertaining and useful reflection on the real heart of leadership … being a human being, rather than trying to adopt the mannerisms of someone beyond us mere mortals.

I have run into many leaders who felt they had to be superhuman, both visibly and emotionally, in order to lead others effectively. Your words remind me once again that the best leaders are usually those who are most human, and who are comfortable being human in front of other humans, regardless of hierarchy or rank.

People who believe themselves to be “better” than most probably struggle to understand the value and the power of being real.

As a reserve officer, I remember watching one active duty major interact with his troops in the field. His manner was casual, friendly, and direct. I would guess most of the soldiers with whom he interacted had no idea of the valuable and accurate information they were sharing with him. He learned more about unit readiness, morale, and tactical knowledge with a few “casual” conversations than he could have by reading multiple after-action reports.

He also had the respect of those soldiers, as easily gauged in how they treated him with respect and connection.

Thanks for a great post reminding us of the value of just being who we are.


Char Weeks  |  02 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Dear Chip

What a refreshing and inspiring article. Many CEO’s distance themselves from people when things go awry, leaving it to someone else to sort people and problems out. That physical and/or emotional distance generated by a disgruntled CEO undermines the confidence of its team. That’s because this brand of CEO is transmitting a take home message that all people are not equal and those who err will be frozen out, if not removed from the action.

A CEO who shares their vulnerability also shares their passion for their people, their company and everyone’s success. They cultivate resilience among their people who simultaneous create and perpetuate a solid organisation with a “can do” culture.

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