Leaders don't cry, and other lies

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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Strong. Stalwart. Stoic. Unflappable. The defining characteristics of a leader. Or are they?

I used to think they were. In fact, in my younger days, I thought showing emotion was weak. Grow up watching movies like "Patton, "First Blood," "Die Hard," "Gladiator" and (a classic) "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," and you get conditioned into thinking that real leaders don’t cry and, perhaps, don’t even feel.

But that’s not true, as I learned the hard way when my company went through a two-year near-death experience almost two decades ago. Nobody—not least me—can keep a stiff upper lip that long. I’ve relearned the lesson many times over the years and was reminded of it recently when a significant initiative I had been pursuing for some time came to a sudden and unexpected halt.

Now, to cry doesn’t only mean to shed tears (although I’m not saying there haven’t been some of those). It can also mean “to call loudly or shout” (guilty), “to make a noise, when bent, like the crumpling of paper” (um…yeah), and “to utter inarticulate sounds, especially of lamentation, grief or suffering” (OK now this is getting personal). Whether the waterworks flow or not, to cry is to emote. And genuine leaders emote.

Sometimes the emotion comes in the form of grief. Experts will tell you that grieving is a fundamental aspect of the human experience, and our modern American temptation to rush through (or deny entirely) the grieving process is harmful to our health, both physical and psychological. But grief isn’t limited to the death of a loved one. It also results from the death of a dream. Or a company. Or a job. Or even a sales presentation on which you worked really, really hard. When something dies, it must be mourned.

Death, of course, isn’t all that can cause tears. Let’s face it, business is difficult. The continuous pressure to grow, for example, can be wearying, and research my company conducted reveals that over the course of an average decade, more than half of all companies suffer through revenue declines. Given the fact that nothing about the past decade has been average, and that two-thirds of companies don’t even make it to their tenth birthday, there’s a whole lot of crying going on. Whether it’s visible or not.

Dealing with others is complicated enough when business is good, but when growth stalls, swirling emotions are sure to be nigh as your colleagues grow increasingly frazzled, frustrated and often in fear for their jobs. It’s human nature (and, frankly, professional) to put on our best faces at work, but to pretend that there isn’t roiling lava under the surface is to ignore what’s really going on.

A great deal of internal tension, lack of alignment, turf battles and even working at cross-purposes can result from unaddressed emotional undercurrents, and a leader who is blind to these dynamics (willingly or otherwise) won’t be a leader for long. Genuine leadership requires empathy—the ability to feel and understand the emotions of others. And there’s no way you can feel the emotions of others if you’re not conversant with your own.

That’s why I believe the best leaders—those that have suffered in the trenches, skirmished with competitors, struggled through recessions, and survived tough transitions—do, in fact, cry. The Book of Proverbs says, “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty,” and “with the humble is wisdom.” The road from haughtiness to humility can’t be trodden without tears.

Wisdom and humility are marks of a true leader, as is transparency. Accumulate enough scars, and there’s no sense trying to hide them. If you do, people will know you’re just covering up. That said, there’s a time and place for everything; you don’t want to bawl in front of the board of directors or blubber at an all-employee meeting. But don’t stuff the emotion. That’s where heart attacks come from.

If you’re near tears, there’s a reason, and you need to find a healthy form of release. Leaders who don’t cry either have hearts of stone or are in denial. Neither is good. Get it out and you can get on with it.