“Just hold it together, Susan; just keep it together.” I can’t tell you how many times I have said these very words to myself over the past 18 months, the most recent being a few short days ago. I was driving my youngest daughter to the airport; it was Christmas Eve. This was going to be my very first Christmas without my daughters, and I was struggling.
About a year and a half ago, I made what is probably the most challenging decision of my life thus far. A choice between moving my parents into my house on Hilton Head Island in order to care for my diabetic father who needed a heart valve transplant or remaining in Massachusetts with my two children. My oldest was a junior in college at the time; my youngest was a junior in High School and didn’t want to leave her friends and social life which is totally understandable. At the same time, my parents needed help; and it was becoming financially and energetically insane to manage two houses 1,100 miles apart. So in February 2013, I chose to move permanently to Hilton Head, leaving my daughters in the Northeast with their father, rationalizing that I was doing what I had always intended to do – move to Hilton Head as my youngest daughter entered college — I was simply doing it two years earlier than anticipated.
I walked my daughter into the airport, standing by her side as she checked her bag. Then we walked together to security and the point of separation – the place where I could walk with her no longer. My heart aching, I hugged and kissed my daughter with a smile and wished her a safe and swift flight. I said the usual “Mom Mentions”: “Text me when you’re on the plane and call me when you land in Boston.”
As my daughter began her journey through the TSA line, I stood and watched – my toes just barely crossing the threshold of the line across the floor and a sign reading, “Only passengers with boarding passes are allowed past this point.” Keeping my eyes on her every move, they began to tear. In my head, I said it again. “Just hold it together; Susan. Keep it together for a few moments more.” As my daughter made it to the other side of security, she turned to wave. I waved back, smiling, as the tears I had been holding back for far too long finally made it to my cheeks. I turned to walk towards the exit doors, passing the restrooms on my left. I began to wonder how I was going to get into the car where my parents and boyfriend were waiting in a way that was cheerful and optimistic. A few steps past the restrooms, I made a U-turn in order to lock myself in a stall so that I could release some of what had been building for days. I cried. After feeling some relief and splashing cold water on my face to minimize my swollen eyes, I proceeded to the car with a smile on my face.
I did it; I got through it! Again! On December 24th and prior to that on December 12th when my oldest daughter left Hilton Head for her return to Burlington, VT where she attends college. With the knowledge of an activity-packed day ahead of me, I was able to distract myself, keeping the tinges of sadness at bay. Until I got home, that is…where in the safety and solitude of my bedroom, I could allow myself to feel what I was feeling: heartache.
I cried for a while feeling the sorrow that filled my heart. Then I began to talk myself down, making a pledge to myself to create the required abundance to hop a plane to visit my daughters or afford a plane ticket for them to visit me at any desired moment. With this commitment, I felt some relief; then proceeded to wrap Christmas presents until 11:57 PM.
As I carefully taped colorful paper around the tokens of love I had purchased for my boyfriend and parents, I reflected on the day and the emotions that surrounded it. In that contemplation, a question arose: Why is it that we, as parents, feel a need to “spare” our children from our more “negative” emotions? Linking that to business, I then wondered why, as a society, do we traditionally believe it to be a sign of weakness when leaders show us how they feel.
Those strong emotional moments – they demand to be felt. Yet most of us – myself included –try to suppress them only to discover that they find their way through – one way or another.
And we tend to judge our feelings. For the more “negative” or “weak” emotions like anger or sadness, many of us try to block our feelings by keeping them inside. Over time, however, we learn that our emotions will persist until such time that we decide to stop ignoring them. Emotions are meant to be felt. And we are meant to “hear” what they are trying to tell us. Frankly, it’s that simple. And no one – not even leaders – are immune.
Why then in a world where authenticity, candidness and vulnerability are becoming more main stream with regard to leadership, do we still find it weak to show our emotions?
As a child, it’s natural to express our emotions as they arise, regardless of location or timing. As adults, we tend to taper our feelings. I’m certainly not suggesting that you throw yourself on to the Board room floor, kicking, screaming and crying; but if we are pushing our leaders to be more authentic, candid and vulnerable, we need to shift our belief that leaders who show their emotions are weak. Real leaders cry. Due to pride and sadness. Because of passion and gratitude. From heartache and frustration.
You are probably familiar with Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence (EI) where he defines EI, using 5 components:
Self-awareness: The ability to recognize and understand personal moods, emotions and drives and their effect on others. Self-awareness requires self-confidence and realistic self-assessment.
Self-regulation: The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods and the propensity to suspend judgment. Self-regulation requires integrity, comfort with ambiguity and openness to change.
Internal Motivation: A passion to work for internal reasons that go beyond external rewards (money and fame) such as one’s purpose or an inner vision of what is important in life.
Empathy: The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people, treating them according to their emotional reactions. Empathy requires sensitivity, listening to fully understand and a genuine desire to learn.
Social Skills: Proficiency in managing relationships, building networks, building rapport and finding common ground.
As a leader, it is obviously important to develop enough self-awareness to self-regulate your emotions. At the same time, showing people how you feel shows them that we make decisions that include the heart. And I think Doug Sundheim, an author and leadership strategy consultant recently featured in Harvard Business Review, would agree. “Emotions are critical to everything a leader must do. Without genuine emotion, such facets of the leader’s role as building trust, strengthening relationships, setting a vision, focusing energy and making tough decisions fall flat or stall. You need emotion on the front end to inform prioritization. You need it on the back end to motivate and inspire.” https://hbr.org/2013/08/good-leaders-get-emotional
And if recent research at Erasmus University is correct, it really doesn’t matter whether the emotional state itself is positive or negative; but how close it aligns with the long-term vision of your message. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2013.03.009
It’s true that “being too emotional in business can create problems. It clouds objective analysis, screws up negotiations, and leads to rash decisions. But…showing too much emotion is far less of a problem than the opposite — showing too little.”
So get out there and emote. Because showing how you feel makes for a more relational person and a more effective leader.