Emotional Expression and Authentic Leadership

As leaders, we constantly receive messages about the importance of remaining calm and composed in the face of pressure or change. News stories run almost daily about executives who “blew their top,” losing both their cool and their seat at the top of the house.

The emotional stakes of leadership are high and sometimes appear contradictory. Organizations require strong executives who can passionately lead the charge. And yet, despite the need for toughness, organizations also desire leaders who display genuine concern and compassion for their people. When errors are made, employees and the public want to see remorse, but leaders also have to take care not to risk becoming too vulnerable. When should leaders be impassive, and when should they show real emotion just like everyone else? How, and how much, should good leaders project their true feelings?

Our colleague Craig McCall, an executive coach and corporate psychologist who has consulted with hundreds of senior executives, recently shared his insights about how much sadness, anger, guilt, hope, fear, or joy are appropriate to display within organizations, and in what circumstances.

“A few weeks ago I was talking with a CEO about one of his senior leaders,” Craig relates, “My client said to me, ‘Tony needs to bang his fist on the table and raise his voice once in a while, to show his anger and passion about our situation! Why doesn’t he?’ That coaching conversation got me thinking more about authentic leadership and emotional expression.”

Here are a few of Craig’s thoughts and suggestions on how best to navigate feelings in leadership settings:

CREATE A COMMON EXPERIENCE: Leaders who outwardly display emotions (such as sadness during times of loss; remorse after failure; or anger for broken promises or ethical breaches) can create an important sense of bonding with their followers. These kinds of emotional displays can reinforce that the leader is real, authentic, and “in touch” with the reality of the situation. Failing to display emotions like sadness, empathy, passion, shame, or even anger at the right times can create the perception of an aloof or even inhumane executive who is disconnected from his people.

BRING OTHERS ALONG: At times, leaders calling out the gap between their own feelings and the predominant emotions of followers can lead to positive results. Consider a situation where a leader has genuine enthusiasm for the company’s vision, but that vision is not yet well understood by staff and employees. A leader who authentically shares his own emotions, even if they are different from the apparent feelings of his audience, can be very inspiring. (Recall John Belushi in the movie ANIMAL HOUSE rallying his fraternity brothers, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!” In that case, the passion was more important than the facts! Or, if you prefer a more highbrow example, Shakespeare’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in HENRY V.)

SHOW NO FEAR: When it pertains to anxiety, the rule of thumb appears to be “never let them see you sweat.” One of our clients, a very seasoned senior executive, likes to say, “A leader never has a bad day.” Of course, leaders have plenty of bad days, but they are careful about how they display pessimism or anxiety to their organizations. Even if the ship is sinking, the good captain stays on board and calmly ensures that the passengers board the lifeboats safely.

BE TRUE TO THYSELF: Above all, displays of emotions must be genuine: it’s very hard to fake authenticity. Behavioral research demonstrates that people can almost always identify false or counterfeit emotions in the words, tone and gestures of their leaders. There is a great old expression “Intent counts more than technique,” so trust your gut and be true to yourself.

If you want a quick pulse-check on how you navigate emotional expression in your own leadership, reflect for a few minutes the following questions:

  • 1. How do you show that you care for others? Many leaders genuinely care about their people, but don’t display that enough. Are your efforts seen and appreciated? If not, why?
  • 2. How are you wired emotionally? Are you a “heart on your sleeve” type or a “contained emotions” type? Based on your self-assessment, should you dial your emotions back or let more of them out?
  • 3. What emotions are taboo for you? Most children are influenced early on to express acceptable emotions and repress others. How does your early formation play out at work and in the boardroom? (Interestingly, many successful executives didn’t come from the most nurturing and emotionally expressive environments.)
  • 4. What are a few potential benefits to bringing a more emotional side of you into work?
  • 5. Who are your most important stakeholders, and what do they need and want from you, including emotionally?

Now, if you’re really courageous, ask a colleague who knows you well, or even your spouse or significant other, to answer those same five questions about you. You may be surprised by the answers, and you might learn one or two things you can do differently to be a more emotionally genuine leader.

Authentic leadership arises not only from our values and intelligence, but from our hearts as well. The next time you experience an emotionally charged situation, take time before you react to reflect on what is happening for you, and consider the pros and cons of sharing your genuine emotional feelings. Ask yourself what YOU would want from your leaders.

If you have thoughts on authentic leadership and emotions, we’d love to hear them. Drop us a note: info@nevinsconsulting.com

“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.”
-- Robert Louis Stevenson