“I think most of the ideas on this list are sh**ty… but that one’s great. Let’s do it.” Jamie, the CEO at a biotech company, had a reputation for walking the fine line between galvanizing a team and offending them. He shot straight and went with his gut. While he had to clean up messes from time to time, it was never anything egregious. And his approach had a profoundly positive impact on the organization. Everyone knew where they stood with him. And everyone knew that he meant what he said. When he got excited about something, no matter what, he was going to make it happen. His energy and emotion accelerated innovation and execution across the company.
“I’m upset. I’m responsible. I apologize.” It was the type of mea culpa no one expected from Jeremy. The COO of a software firm, he had had a horrible relationship for years with Ron, a key product development VP. Finally, frustrated and tired, Ron quit. Within months it became clear that Jeremy had underestimated Ron’s impact on his team. It started to fall apart. With Ron gone, Jeremy was able to step back and see that he’d let a small issue create a huge problem. And that his stubbornness was at the root of it. He apologized to the executive team with a tear in his eye. I was there. It was shocking. That’s not the kind of guy Jeremy was. In an instant, I understood how much he cared about the company and how ashamed he felt. Everyone saw it. Amazingly, he ended up apologizing to Ron and hiring him back.
Often, one of the reasons we don’t show emotion is because we’re not even aware we’re feeling it. We’re angry, frustrated, or upset and we suppress it. We’re excited, motivated, or inspired and we temper it. We do it without even realizing it. Emotional data seems less relevant in the business world where logical data reigns supreme. But it’s not only relevant, it’s usually the lynchpin to change and growth.
One further point: It’s important to note there’s a gender bias around showing emotion at work — in the same places where men get labeled tough, passionate or open, I’ve seen women get labeled bitchy, hysterical or weak. I find this double standard particularly destructive and insidious because it leads to women’s emotions getting dismissed more readily than men’s, often at exactly the times where that emotion is most needed — times when no one else in the room is raising the most important points. We all need to stay aware of this double standard and not enable it.
My advice to all leaders is to pay attention to your emotions. At least a couple times a week, stop for 10 minutes and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Write it down if you can. Keeping a regular journal is a helpful way to understand how you’re feeling. Then pick your spots to let loose a little. Let your emotions out. Let people in. Both are critical to effective leadership.
Doug Sundheim is a leadership and strategy consultant with over 20 years experience in helping leaders drive personal and organizational growth. His latest book is Taking Smart Risks: How Sharp Leaders Win When Stakes are High.