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Is It Okay for Leaders to Get Emotional?

NOTE: I originally wrote this post exactly two years ago to the day. It has become even more poignant as we watched President Obama give two emotional speeches over the past three days in the wake of events in Newtown. It was this speech on Friday, however, that really moved many Americans and expressed our collective sorrow at the tragedy.

In some ways, that show of emotion connects with us and makes the leader more human. But it also could make the person appear “weak” or lacking composure and self control.

See below for more examples in my original post.

****** ORIGINAL POST ON DECEMBER 17, 2010 ********

The other night, I was watching the 60 Minutes interview with incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner. At one point, the host asked Boehner’s wife what she thought about his rise from waiting tables in the restaurant where they were seated to serving his country as the head of the House. She said she was proud of him and Boehner broke down in tears. Here’s another clip from the interview:

Of course, Boehner is not the only political figure who’s got a habit of losing composure on occasion. How about his colleague on the other side of the aisle, Vice President Biden? Skip to 2:19 here:

Then there’s Hillary Clinton’s emotional New Hampshire moment during the 2008 Presidential campaign:

Note some of the themes in these clips: children, patriotism, passion, friendship – the kinds of things that mean something. And yet each of them has been criticized as being weak or unworthy of office for revealing this kind of raw emotion.

I’m not turned off by this type of vulnerability. In fact, I think it makes them more appealing and personal, authentic and human. I also wish it made it harder to demonize them based on party affiliation, but unfortunately each side attempts to exploit these unscripted expressions of vulnerability as a sign of weakness.

So what do you think?

Is it okay for our leaders to show this kind of emotion?

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Lindsey L Williams

I believe that this could’ve possibly been a strategically attempt to re-introduce Boehner to the American public. I would also say that whether it was political or not, overall the American people will identify with this event as a positive thing. We all know that there are times when successful people “forget where they came from”. Conversely, people tend to look at the successful person in the “finished product” stage of the person’s life and forget that the person is successful for meeting the requirements for set goals, and “sticking with it”, despite the process of waiting tables for a season. He did not get caught up in the “process”, and kept his eyes on the prize.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

You could broaden the question to – is it okay for our government leaders and workers to show emotions. Gov 2.0 is going to require a shift from faceless and emotionless bureaucrats of the past to civil servants who can connect with citizens on a more personal basis. If not emotionally, at least more empathetically. Moving beyond customer service to citizen engagement is going to require that trust exists between the parties and a way to build that trust is to demonstrate our humanity to each other.

Now that level of engagement also comes with many risks so agencies need to start training their employees on how to communicate better and on emotional intelligence.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Lindsey – For Boehner, I think it’s (a) too common and (b) too natural for the show of emotion to be strategic. And I completely agree that we idolize our public figures to such a degree that we think they are larger than life….forgetting that they often worked for years in obscurity, being faithful in the minor and mundane things that lead to greatness and, ultimately, grand scale leadership.

@Bill – I didn’t want to pigeon-hole this post as being solely about “Gov 2.0” but was thinking about the application of this post to the use of technology to “humanize” government (seems ironic)…especially as we have more opportunities for real-time and even face-to-face, video-based interactions. See also a previous post of mine on the “6 Competencies of a Gov 2.0 Leader.” Maybe I should include “impassioned” or “tender” as one of my words. 😉

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Andrew – I wasn’t thinking of Gov 2.0 but actually had the street-level bureaucrat model in mind. The kind of interactions that take place across the desk when you are at the local Social Security office or the DMV. In those cases, it seems that the technology is used as a barrier to prevent citizen engagement.

For example: when I had to transfer my license and car registration from Kentucky to Maryland, I had to go in person to the local MVA office with the required documents. I didn’t have all of the necessary documents and when I tried to ask the clerk what else I needed I received the curt reply that “it’s on the website.” But the MVA website is not the easiest site to find information on. Luckily some nice person set up an unofficial website that presented the same info as the official MVA site but in an easier to understand and navigate format. The local MVA office had plenty of signs that directed me to use the services online and find information online but it seemed that this was a way to keep me from bothering the clerks with my questions.

So I fully understand why you don’t want to make this a question about technology because it isn’t. The technology can help or hinder but the real issue is moving civil servants from the street-level bureaucrat mode of interaction into actually engaging personally with citizens.

Bryan Conway JD, PMP

Call me insenstive, but unless the leader is in severe physical pain or a loved one was afflicted with a serious disease or passed away, I don’t want to see him/her cry in public.


I am good with leaders showing emotion. They are like us – human beings with all the emotions we all experience. When I see them showing emotion it makes me feel they are more understanding of the issues we all face.

Mark Hammer

People want both competence and authenticity in their leaders. One doesn’t have to break out the tissues every time to be perceived as authentic. (Indeed, if you did, you might likely come to be perceived as inauthentic.) But being visibly shaken by the same things that visibly shake any normal sentient being is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you get it. I don’t want leaders who are easily thrown by things, but I like leaders who get it.

When I used to teach college, I would occasionally have students coming to my office in tears about something. They would always apologize, needlessly, for the tears, and I would remind them that people generally cry when they realize or ponder what is most important to them: their goals and dreams, their close relationships. There is nothing to be ashamed of, and everything to be proud of, in knowing what’s most important to you in life.

One year, teaching an undergrad class on adolescent development, I did a quick and dirty survey study, and asked the 70 or so students (many of whom were in their 30’s and older), among a host of things, how much each of their parents openly demonstrated or declared what their values were, and what they stood for. I indicated that it did not have to be any sort of formal manifesto. It could be as simple as watching the news, and saying for others in the room to hear, “I don’t know how people could do such things to each other”, or a toast at a family gathering. But it needed to convey what they (the parent) viewed as important in life. Did they communicate it often, ever?

I asked the students to also indicate how emotionally close they felt to each parent, and how much they felt they could trust that parent to always act in their best interests. It should not surprise us in the least that when people indicated a parent as frequently conveying, in some form, what they stood for, and what was important to them, the respondent indicated feeling closer to that parent, and also indicated trusting that parent to always act in the respondent’s best interests. It wasn’t any sort of competitive or reciprocal rating. So people could indicate feeling close to, and trusting both parents…or not.

Authenticity gets you a lot. Buy-in is critical to the functionality of any organization, the trust of the nation, and the ability of any leader to accomplish great things. Getting misty-eyed is not the only route to that authenticity, but sometimes, on any given day, or at any given moment, it is the best route.

Dannielle Blumenthal

My 2 cents on emotion.

1) Women should never, ever, ever (repeat that 3 more times) seem out of control. That includes crying. An almost invisible tear coming out of your eye in response to a tragedy is the exception. Even then you better be the Iron Lady the rest of the time.

2) Men can get away with showing emotion more than women can because it plays against the usual expectation. In fact I would argue that the more emotion male leaders show the more emotionally intelligent they seem.

Please do not tell me that gender is irrelevant when it comes to showing emotion and how that is perceived.

Separately, I would note that when I left my previous agency after 7 years, I broke my own rule (oy vey). So embarrassing.

Mark Hammer

VERY fair point..

The meaning of open displays of emotion is always set against, or predicated on, the “baseline”, and the baseline is always derived not only from what people actually do, but from what people think someone like that would normally do.

I noted earlier that one wants outward signs of both competence and authenticity from leaders. The behavioural evidence any given person uses to draw inferences about each can vary, and vary as a function of the kind of person one is trying to draw inferences about.

The inherent (but moderate) bias against female leaders would suggest that visible signs of emotional fragility would be presumed to inform more about that person’s competence than about their authenticity. In the case of men, unless it is a frequent occurence in circumstances that ought not to evoke such displays, open display of emotion would be more likely to be interpreted as a sign of authenticity than a sign of compromised competence.

That’s not the sort of bias any of us should be proud of, or even shrug and accept, but it IS the way things are…for the time being. One day, Dannielle, one day…..

Dannielle Blumenthal

I thought it was interesting that gender was not part of the comments previously. (My dissertation was called “Women and Soap Opera” and was about how soap operas are a feminist activity, in that they celebrate emotionality in a culture that represses its public display.)

There is a very good book called If You Have To Cry, Go Outside by Kelly Cutrone. I highly recommend it to any woman in a position of authority.

There was a study published in Harvard Business Review, “Why Fair Bosses Fall Behind,” to the effect that mean female bosses get more respect than nice ones.

Unfortunately we are challenged as a culture to talk about stereotypes – gender, race, ethnicity, culture, religion – without seeming like we’re stereotyping. But these are important conversations to have, respectfully. Because critical dialogue about sensitive issues defuses their sensitivity.

Everyone has to determine what tack they will take to cope with the stereotypes that affect them. For women, unfortunately, given stereotypes that “women can’t lead” there is a necessary decision to act tougher than one actually is – to conform to an image of leadership where the baseline is a male.

David B. Grinberg

Awesome post/repost, Andy.

Here’s an interesting take from Ragan.com: Tears While Speaking: Lessons from Obama. “The president, in talking about the heartbreaking school shootings in Connecticut, gave way to emotion. Here’s what to keep in mind the next time you face a difficult speaking event.”