Much of what comes out of people’s mouths in business these days is sugar-coated, couched, and polished. The messages are manufactured, trying to strike just the right tone. Genuine emotion stands in stark contrast. It’s a real person sharing a real feeling. When we hear it, we’re riveted — for one because it’s rare, but also because it’s real. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable and a little messy. But that’s what makes it powerful. No one is trying to hide anything.
We hide emotions in an attempt to stay in control, look strong, and keep things at arm’s length. But in reality, doing so diminishes our control and weakens our capacity to lead — because it hamstrings us. We end up not saying what we mean or meaning what we say. We beat around the bush. And that never connects, compels, or communicates powerfully.
Yes, being too emotional in business can create problems. It clouds objective analysis, screws up negotiations, and leads to rash decisions. But in nearly two decades of working with leaders, I’ve found that showing too much emotion is far less of a problem than the opposite — showing too little.
Emotions are critical to everything a leader must do: build trust, strengthen relationships, set a vision, focus energy, get people moving, make tradeoffs, make tough decisions, and learn from failure. Without genuine emotion these things always fall flat and stall. You need emotion on the front end to inform prioritization. You need it on the back end to motivate and inspire.
Over the last 17 years working with senior teams I’ve collected a lot of examples of leaders getting emotional — to good end. Here are a few:
“I’m angry that I had to spend 3 hours dealing with a problem that you created — a problem that you should have handled. Don’t put me in that position again.” Joan, a partner in a consulting firm, hated conflict and rarely said things like this. She normally just rolled up her sleeves and took care of problems herself, even if she hadn’t created them. Then she got promoted to the head of the Southeast Region. There were too many problems to take care of by herself. Her outburst above and the ensuing conversation was a survival tactic, but it sent a clear message to the partner in charge of the Atlanta office. Don’t let this employee staffing issue happen again, and if it does, fix it yourself — before it lands on my plate. It was uncharacteristically aggressive for Joan, but exactly what the situation needed. That was two years ago and the problem hasn’t happened since.