CEO Coaching: Can Great Leaders Be Emotional?

Don’t go beyond the guardrails, but be real!

In a recent session with a CEO and his executive team, we discussed personality preferences as they relate to leadership. One member is particularly stoic, yet the CEO is intense and emotional. This question came up: “Is it OK to show emotions?” I’ve heard this query before and believe it deserves a thorough answer.

If I said yes, I’d give credence to the hot-tempered screamers. If I said no, I’d discourage those positively passionate leaders from getting their people excited. So I used that time-honored phrase from the consulting community: “It depends!”

If people tag you as “emotional,” it often coincides with having lack of self-control or being volatile. Juxtaposed, if they think you’re unemotional, it could mean indifferent or cold. None of these are associated with effective leadership.

You must show emotion when you lead. However, it has to be controlled — not Machiavellian, but honest and appropriate for the situation.

Joy and enthusiasm are infectious and positive and deserve only moderate containment. Sharing success (true success, not manufactured) with your team is wonderful. Don’t manufacture wins, but certainly acknowledge and celebrate real ones. If you’re in a turn-around situation, you may have to start with small wins. If you’re in a well-oiled machinelike environment, you may wait for more significant performance. Some of the most effective leaders I’ve met or worked with can be effusive with their positive statements.

On the flip side are anger and agony — both best directed at situations rather than people. You must harness anger, or you’ll alienate people and destroy commitment. Reserve it for violation of ethics and trust. If you’ve ever worked for a screamer, you know that people start to hide mistakes and blame others. Showing anguish over a tough situation is just being vulnerable. However, you must quickly follow this up with a plan and visible confidence. (As emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman points out, “come with me” is an effective leadership style.)

If you think about the great leaders you’ve worked for or admired from afar, you’ll probably observe that they were controlled but also not afraid to show emotion in the right situation. Effective leaders are not nice, but they are kind. Self-control is a trait of emotional intelligence, but lack of affect is a symptom of psychological disorder, not something to aspire to. Don’t go beyond the guardrails, but be real!

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