Showing Emotion In Leadership – The Debate

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I recently posted on social media about the image that dominated the press last weekend – that of an emotional Theresa May as she announced her resignation date. It’s had quite an emotional response (!) and so I thought I’d share.

I asked the question: when is it appropriate to show emotion as a leader? Compare the reaction she may have received if she had been seen crying at the Grenfell site for example as opposed to – seemingly – at her own misfortunes. The headlines may have been quite different.

This post isn’t about politics but a musing on leadership and emotion. In my view, showing emotion isn’t a sign of weakness. If anything, it is a sign of strength as it reinforces that the person showing it understands the enormity of the situation, has emotionally invested and is affected by it.

Some of our most powerful and admired leaders are not afraid to show emotion – think back to Jacinda Arden’s openly emotional state when she met the families of the recent New Zealand bombing victims or Barack Obama’s response to the Newtown School shootings which devastated a Connecticut community.

Their humanity was lauded, and their leadership re-enforced as people felt they had been affected and moved by these terrible tragedies. And they were the people with the power to do something about it – wasn‘t it less than a week after that the gun laws were completely overhauled in New Zealand?

As Jackie Handy posted on Facebook, it is the misplacing of emotion and the expectancy of when to show emotion as a leader that is in question. Potentially it’s the environment that needs to change to permit more displays of emotion in our leaders.

“I can’t believe for a moment that she didn’t feel emotion at Grenfell etc, but instead was ‘expected’ to be stoic and strong in the face of that situation. Her resignation speech was just that perhaps, a personal resignation whereby her true emotions came out publicly when ‘the front’ no longer seemed to matter.”

This is an interesting point. We are definitely drawn to authenticity, we want our leaders to be real, but how far do we permit public displays of emotion? Is there not an element of us wanting our leaders to be strong, stoic and unphased? There seems to be a fine line and it seems to be that when the country is crying and in shock, leaders are permitted to be too.

But let’s go into the corporate world rather than world leaders – as this can, arguably, be trickier. Do you have a boss who is in touch with their emotions? How does that resonate with you and make you feel?

As Lucy Hodgson remembers, I have never been much of a poker player and, at a senior level in the recruitment industry, I was always lambasted for it, being told it was absolutely unacceptable to cry or for that matter, to laugh uncontrollably, but that’s who I am. 

I deal with highly sensitive situations and people who are making hugely significant decisions every day, that also have a direct impact on my business, so to me it would be inhuman not to show some emotion at times. It took me until my late 30s to realise that those condemning me were wrong.”

There is embedded conditioning in a lot of businesses that the top dogs don’t show emotion (well, maybe apart from anger!) as it’s associated with weakness which, as the people at the very top have shown us, it’s not. Unfortunately, this behaviour trickles down to the staff below teaching that this is how leaders behave and that showing emotion is not conducive to being a leader. So, for those with ambition and growth strategies, their natural emotional selves are at risk of being buried in order to succeed and are at risk of coming out in other ways when triggered, which can be unequivocally damaging and dangerous to themselves and their teams.

Through my career, I’ve been drawn to leaders who express emotion when moved, either by tragic events or through sheer frustration at how hard things can sometimes be. I admire public speakers who ‘go there’ when telling stories, even if I know it’s a story they’ve told time and again, as long as the story is relatable and there’s a valuable learning point as a result. What I don’t want is a leader who looks like they’re falling apart when the proverbial hits the fan, someone who appears not to have the resilience or capability to move beyond the challenge, or a speaker who wallows in victimhood simply to elicit sympathy.

It’s such an interesting topic and we haven’t even started on the difference between men and women showing emotion and what the different rhetoric evokes in people. For example, if Theresa May had been a male PM showing emotion, would they have been lambasted in the press quite so much? It’s hard to say.

Through working with leaders from many sectors, I’ve realised that emotional intelligence (EQ) is often a more valuable quality that IQ.

In 1995, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote a book called ‘Emotional Intelligence’. In it, he suggests that EQ may be more important than IQ in today’s business world. This is because being able to understand yourself and proactively managing your relationships with other people is pivotal in achieving things collectively (see post here).

The important point to note is that EQ isn’t about letting your emotions run away with you, or wearing your heart on your sleeve 24/7, it’s about acknowledging your emotions, allowing them the space to breathe and then channeling them to move to a more empowered place.

What do you think?

For more on leadership and EQ, check out the self-awareness chapter of Leading with Gravitas, sign up for our next Gravitas Masterclass or Gravitas for Women Programme or talk to us about our bespoke in-house programmes.

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