Jump directly to the Content Jump directly to the Content

Great Leaders Know How to Handle Their Emotions

But that probably doesn’t mean what you think.

It’s an odd thing to break into tears while chairing an elder’s meeting.

Before our gathering, I’d done my homework and had all the facts we needed to make decisions. But when we came to an agenda item about staffing, I became overwhelmed by my feelings—care for the staff person involved, worries that I had failed, fear about financial ramifications. I bit my lip to control my tears, but that has never really worked. With embarrassment I discovered that I had brought the meeting to a standstill. But my tears revealed the complexity of the issue and (once I stopped apologizing) the conversation took on a new dimension.

There are few things that make us feel more vulnerable than our own emotions. Anger, fear, sadness all knock us off our feet right when we’re trying to look like leaders. If we have been told that leadership is always strong, how do we respond to this breaking in of emotion? Is emotion something to control, or does it reveal opportunities for God to show himself?

Empathy v. Sympathy

Last week, I was part of a workshop on understanding poverty. We heard heartbreaking stories: parents working long hours but unable to make ends meet, dreaming of change but stuck in old cycles. Afterward the facilitator asked, “How does this make you feel?” I wondered whether people would say “sad,” “frustrated,” or “angry.” All I could think was “heavy.”

But the answers given were not about feelings. The first response was, “I think that happened to those people because . . .” And the second: “That reminds me of . . .”

I was still frustrated by that conversation when we watched a video about empathy by Brené Brown. In it she says, “Empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection . . . Empathy is feeling with people. . . . Empathy is a choice. It’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” On the other hand, she says, the sympathetic response changes the subject or tries to fix the problem. This seemed ironic right after the two responses that had changed the subject and tried to fix the problem. If we want to connect, we need empathy, which requires us to connect with our own feelings.

Which does not always feel great.

Gender and Emotion

As I reflected on the experience, I realized that the two unsatisfying responses were from men, and I jumped to conclusions: “Typical men! Out of touch with their emotions. Always wanting to look strong and in control.” But before the day was over, I was humbled. While hearing a church member’s story of family abuse, I had the same “fix it” response: “Well, what you need to do is . . .” Her problem was messy and I wanted to clean it up—quickly, before I felt something.

We’ve been sold a lot of stories about gender and emotion. (Women are emotional. Men are not.) We’ve also been sold a lot of stories about gender and power. (Women are weak. Men are strong.) And we’ve been sold a lot of stories about emotion and power. (Emotion is weakness. So powerful leaders should be in control of their emotions or, better yet, have none.)

But these stories don’t leave much room for human hearts. Our culture has shaped what it means to be a man, which in turn has shaped what it means to be a leader, which in turn has shaped what it means for women to lead. These expectations are burdensome for all of us—men and women. So to learn human kinds of leadership, it’s important for us to look at gender and emotion.

Early in my preaching ministry, I had a conversation with a nationally known preacher whose advice could be summed up as, “Be totally yourself . . . but don’t be too much of a woman.” I understand that it will get old if all my sermon illustrations come from pregnancy, but he could have just said, “Be sure you relate to your audience”—good advice for men and women. What it affirmed to me was the unspoken message I’d heard my whole life—if you want to be taken seriously by a mixed audience, hold off on the emotional stuff.

When Emotion Becomes Abuse

We often try to overcome emotion with strength. Whether we’re faced with the complexity of poverty or the heartbreak of divorce or the fear of looking foolish, emotion upsets our equilibrium, sometimes suddenly. Tears look weak. Admissions such as “That hurt me” or “I’ve overwhelmed by that question” or “I’m embarrassed by this situation” look weak. But anger, argument, and ready answers don’t. So when we’re trying to look strong and emotion hits, we desperately do whatever makes it seem to go away. Most of the time, however, what we’ve actually done is defer it or transfer our hurt to someone else. The quick fix turns into a kind of violence as we transform our raw emotion into disconnection and a subtle form of abuse.

Susan Scott, a conversational consultant, uses the image of an “emotional wake,” which implies that we leave something behind with every conversation—something for which we should take responsibility. “It can be an afterglow, aftertaste, or aftermath,” she says. For leaders, an emotional wake of control is more socially acceptable than one of admitting limitations. It feels good to act out recklessly rather than face our emotions, but in the long run it takes more energy to mop up the mess. And it misses the opportunity to engage well with each other and with God.

I’ve tried pretending I have no emotions, but not only is it untrue of who I am, it’s untrue to who we all—men and women—really are as humans. It continues the stereotype that half my congregation and half my staff have no emotion (or shouldn’t). It buys in to falsehoods: to be a leader is to be like a man, and to be like a man is to be emotionless. If, regardless of gender, we can learn to be comfortable with our emotion, to take responsibility for it and express it in a way that respects others’ emotions, we will find a way to be whole humans. As I figure out how to be emotionally present in my leadership, I’ve watched the men I lead find courage to face their own feelings. This is not a gender-specific issue. Our freedoms are intertwined as women and men.

Here’s why this is important: We have been told that emotion is weakness and we have also been told that there is no place for weakness in leadership. So how can any of us as emotional beings find a way to lead?

Free to Feel

We have talked for years about the expectations our culture creates for women, but we are beginning to see what unrealistic expectations we also have for men—that they be strong and in control at all times. Child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson have devoted their careers to studying the ways we raise boys. They believe that “our culture is railroading boys into lives of isolation, shame, and anger” and have found that “boys, beginning at a young age, are systematically steered away from their emotional lives toward silence, solitude, and distrust.”

A video by the Representation Project called The Mask You Live In explores why, compared to girls, “boys in the U.S. are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives.” This video, which begins with a litany of messages we tell our boys—“Stop crying!” “Be cool!” “Be a man!”—goes on to quote psychologist and educator Niobe Way: “They really buy into a culture that doesn’t value what we have feminized. If you’re in a culture that doesn’t value caring, doesn’t value relationships, doesn’t value empathy, you are going to have boys and girls, men and women go crazy.”

As it took courage for me to create my own way to lead, it will take courage for men to step out of the pressure to always be in control. It will take wives and mothers who are willing to let their husbands and sons be human. It will take brothers and fathers who choose not to play macho head games with each other. Not only will this bring about freedom for men, it will affect us all as we redefine human leadership and what it means to be emotional beings who also lead.

Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. This article is taken from The Vulnerable Pastor; copyright 2015 by Mandy Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

Recent Posts

When Your Calling Is Challenged
As hardships come, you have 1 of 3 options.
What Is Calling?
Defining this “super-spiritual” word
Cultivate Your Calling in Each Stage of Life
Angie Ward discusses cultivating leadership amid ever-changing responsibilities.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
How to know whether to leave or stay in your ministry context.

Follow us


free newsletters: