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More than 13 months into a global pandemic, and with at least several months to come even before the medical situation clears to the point that the massive economic, social, educational, and stress-related effects can begin to be properly addressed, many leaders are finding their long acquired bag of leadership tricks is rather empty.

We don’t have the energy to figure out creative ways to continue addressing what are essentially the same issues, many of which are far beyond our control.

We long ago used up our most reliable tactics and favourite approaches to raise motivation and compliance from our people; and we may be exhausted ourselves.

These are emotional times for everyone and leaders are not always comfortable expressing emotion as part of our leadership. That may be because we are not very well in tune with our own emotions. It may be because we have accepted a myth that leadership is a stoic exercise where feelings are a sign of unwelcome weakness. Or it may be because we have seen too many poor and suspect examples of leaders misusing emotion in ways that erode trust and credibility.

So, what is the place of expressing emotion in leadership?

I’m not a psychologist, just an active observer and advisor of leadership for many years, but I think there are some simple practical ways to have emotion work for us  and for the good of our organizations, causes, and people.

First we have to work within ourselves.

1. Become skilled in recognizing your own emotions. 
Most effective leaders have some innate ability to read and affect the emotions of others (for good or otherwise). It’s a necessary part of holding influence. But many are not nearly as developed at understanding our own feelings and motivations. Self-awareness is something that can be learned and improved with some degree of intent and the assistance of therapists, counsellors, medical professionals, clergy, mentors, or even intuitive friends. So much of what we see as leadership failure can be attributed to leaders who didn’t recognize what was happening inside their own heads and hearts. Becoming adept at knowing our full range of emotion and expressing them in safer contexts before going public is far better than releasing a rush that we ourselves don’t grasp.

2. Deal with underlying issues of credibility.
Emotion provokes emotion, but we can’t always control what the responsive emotion will be. If we are seen as sincere and authentic there is  good chance that our expression of emotion will be met with compassion or a mirroring of what we reveal. If we are not trusted or are perceived as manipulative the response will reflect it. The many examples of public figures offering tearful apologies that are then dissected by suspicious critics are very telling. While it is reality that there are almost always some people who don’t like or trust us, wise leaders are continually seeking to address areas where they have left room to be misunderstood in their character or competence; and they acknowledge those issues early and honestly whenever possible.

3. Face your insecurities.
Expressing sincere emotion is inherently vulnerable and it involves a level of risk. For many leaders, especially those who aren’t experienced or comfortable with showing their feelings, it can trigger all the sources of insecurity we prefer to keep stashed away. The sense of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, or exposure can undermine all our strengths and best intentions. Too many leaders fail when insecurity controls their direction instead of the confidence that comes from a deeply rooted sense of identity. Catalyst offers a tool specifically on how insecurity affects leaders and what we can do about it. Contact us and ask about the Kryptonite workshop.

Then we can show our emotions impactfully.

1. Name the emotion we are expressing.
Say “I am angry”, “I am deeply concerned”, “I am sorry”, “I am heartbroken”. Don’t leave people having to interpret what you are showing. It is too easy for any of us to project our own feelings when we aren’t sure what others are experiencing. Being clear about what this is, and what it isn’t makes it much easier for others to join us with empathy and compassion that can help empower the message we are trying to communicate.

2. Frame the feelings.
Just telling people how we feel without explaining why is dangerous. Context is essential. People will want to understand what provokes our emotion and how it impacts them before they can determine how to best respond. Channel the situation toward the response you want by providing specific examples of what is affecting you and what you are planning to do about it. Give people an outlet to direct their responses.

3. Don’t play games.
Many leaders have the potential to manipulate people. Ethical leaders don’t do it. Expressing emotion can be self-serving, insecure, cynical, and abusive. The difference between persuasion and manipulation may be somewhat subtle but the consequences for being exposed after crossing the line make it well worth keeping your distance. It may work in the short term, but its a violation of your people and often comes back to bite you, as it should.

And finally, we have to act.

Emotion is a valid part of leadership. It drives motivation, informs aspects of decision making, and helps engage and connect with people. But it is not enough. Expressing emotion that doesn’t translate into meaningful action is a failure of leadership. It undermines trust and credibility, weakens authority, and creates suspicion about all future emotion.

Hypocritical leaders use the rush of emotion to hide their inadequacy or to avoid accountability. This feeds cynicism that makes leadership, and life, harder for all of us.

In times of extended stress we need leaders who can demonstrate their humanity. Showing emotion with discernment and sincerity is a natural response and an effective approach to the challenges we face. Doing the work to develop healthy self-awareness and communicating with clarity will serve all of us, and everyone we serve as leaders, very well.

How do you know when and how to best express your emotions as a leader?

*Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels*

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