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Lucy Ball is a leadership coach and facilitator

When Leaders Cry

Many of my clients have cried at work. Male and female. The last female example: tears of frustration when she didn’t feel heard. The last male example: choking on a sob whilst acknowledging his disappointment in front of his team. This post is for leaders who have cried and those who haven’t.

I don’t know anyone who has done this that doesn’t struggle with their self-esteem in that moment. The shame of public emotion seems unavoidable in our culture. What’s really important I believe is what happens next. What do you do? And, once you’ve regained control of your voice*, what do you say?

*I’m told by a singer that the lump in your throat is your larynx rising up and tightening, it needs to drop and relax before you get your normal voice back.

The temptation (whilst wishing the ground to swallow you up) is to apologise. ‘I’m sorry, how embarrassing‘ or to minimise ‘I’m ok, I’m fine‘. There’s even the temptation to walk out and not come back. But the most powerful leaders I’ve witnessed do none of the above.

Instead I’ve seen three powerful approaches

1. Powerful leaders do what they need to do in the moment to regain calm. One asked for a glass of water, another left the room and returned shortly after, another walked to the window and took a deep breath.

2. Powerful leaders do not apologise for their tears but they may explain them. ‘Those tears are what came when I felt frustrated that I wasn’t heard.’ Or ‘those were tears of self-criticism, it feels awful that we’re in this position and I blame myself’.

3. Powerful leaders then sit with the silence that follows and do not feel the need to rescue themselves or their colleagues from discomfort. Even with awkward tumbleweed rolling across the floor they can stay present and let the next moment unfold. And these next moments are often breakthrough moments in the performance of a team.

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