Showing Emotions in Leadership: A Discussion With Dr. Sarah Keir

Emotions in leadership

A recent remark got me thinking; should we, as leaders, show emotion or does it impact negatively on our message? 

The remark was about the conduct of the BVA President, Daniella Dos Santos, during one of her presentations at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. This person, a fellow leader in the profession, thought her showing emotion was a sign of poor leadership and not suitable behaviour for a leader at an important time.

In my opinion, this question has a lot to do with cultural and societal expectations, part of which involves strong gender biases. The fact is until fairly recently, most leaders have been men. Because of this, we expect leaders to be strong, assertive, charismatic and therefore powerful. Even Margaret Thatcher acted in a very masculine way, perhaps in part due to the traditional, misogynist view that ‘women are too emotionally unstable to function as a leader’ and that, to get into the male-dominated position, they have to over-compensate. 

Being a leader isn’t about being stoical; it’s about being authentic. It’s about real people sharing a real feeling in a real situation. It’s powerful because through the authenticity we know they aren’t trying to hide anything. Now think of a strong female leader of our current times: the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden. When she shows emotion, it does not distract from her authority and confidence. Real emotions connect and communicate powerfully.

Despite the advances in gender equality over recent decades, in many circles (business and personal), a bold woman is thought of as a ‘bitch’ in the same situation a man would be called ‘assertive’. I have personally experienced this double standard. The gender expectation is that the woman will be passive, accommodating, and emotional is still the pervasive bias. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the initial remark that started this article was made to me by a fellow woman. Women often judge other women harder than men thereby perpetuating this gender bias (read ‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez for more on this).

I think the other major reason for leaders hiding emotions is that we use it as a form of defence, protection from our fears of addressing or dealing with emotions, as an attempt to look like we are in control. We hide from the vulnerability of emotion because we fear being proven wrong, we don’t know what the outcome will be, and we are taking a risk by opening up. 

But rather than emotions being chinks in strength and a sign of weakness, these are a sign of our humanity and inspire trust and connection in those we lead, which in turn engenders engagement. And who wouldn’t want a more engaged team? Remember that we constantly provide a model of behaviour for our team to mirror and if we want the team to work by collaboration we need to work on trust and connection. Vulnerability is a huge topic (which Brené Brown writes far more eloquently than I so please read her books ‘Dare To Lead’ or listen to her podcast to explore this more fully).

So what can we do? We can be aware of our own gender biases and the male default and, most importantly, we need to ensure we don’t model a thick skin but are empathetic and authentic. Dare to show just a little vulnerability. Finally, don’t confuse the demonstration of emotions as a lack of emotional intelligence, which is a much stronger predictor of effective leadership than plain stoicism.

Enjoyed this article? Check out Dr Keir’s previous blog on ‘How to Deal with Redundancy’ here. 

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