Should CEOs Cry On The Job?

It’s no joke. CEOs cry just like other humans.

In 2008 Howard Schultz returned to the CEO role at Starbucks. But it was the height of the recession, and more than 600 outlets had to close their doors, resulting in massive layoffs (approximately 12,000 workers lost their jobs).

“When I stood up in front of people and I apologized, I started crying, in that first week,” Schultz told Oprah Winfrey in 2013.

While Schultz’s show of vulnerability was predominantly seen as a reflection of his caring and humanity at the time, years later another CEO, Braden Wallake became infamously known as “the crying CEO” after posting a tear-filled selfie on LinkedIn.

He too was bereft after laying off people from his marketing agency, HyperSocial, but his tears weren’t exactly met with sympathy. Instead, he faced a range of criticism and backlash for what some perceived as him centering himself and with others outright questioning his sincerity.

These two examples beg the question: for leaders, when (if ever) does it make sense to show raw emotion?

Why they cried: breaking down the breakdown

On Winfrey’s show, Starbucks CEO Schultz said that men especially are taught not to shed tears in a public setting. The CEO equated his moment of vulnerability with transparency.

“I think the currency of leadership is transparency,” he said. “You’ve got to be truthful. I don’t think you should be vulnerable every day, but there are moments where you’ve got to share your soul and conscience with people and show them who you are, and not be afraid of it.”

For his part, HyperSocial CEO Wallake said, “I just want people to see that not every CEO out there is cold-hearted and doesn’t care when he/she has to lay people off. I’m sure there are hundreds and thousands of others like me.”

According to André Spicer, professor of organizational behavior at Bayes Business School, despite the mixed reactions to Wallake’s post, it was an attempt to follow current management trend towards authenticity.

“CEOs and leaders have been encouraged to be authentic and bring their real selves to work,” Spicer told CNBC. “It’s showing your real emotions and real reactions and people are kind of encouraged to display this through a lot of current management thinking.”

CEOs and emotional intelligence

American psychologist Daniel Goleman has studied emotional intelligence for years. Writing in Harvard Business Review in 2001, Goleman explained:

“A leader’s emotional intelligence creates a certain culture or work environment. High levels of emotional intelligence… create climates in which information-sharing, trust, healthy risk-taking, and learning flourish. Low levels of emotional intelligence create climates rife with fear and anxiety. Because tense or terrified employees can be very productive in the short term, their organizations may post good results, but they never last.”

Entrepreneur coach Chip Conley believes that emotional intelligence is a key ingredient for leadership and that CEO should also stand for “chief emotions officer.”

“A CEO is the crossing guard at the intersection of psychology and business, and what that means is that you better be moderately good at understanding people,” he said during a panel conversation at the Inc. Founders House at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin. “The more senior you are in an organization, the more you need to know what your emotional ripple, what your emotional contagion is.”

So, should crying be part of your leadership comms strategy?

Emotional intelligence is one thing. But what sets leaders apart is projecting an image of confidence even when they have doubts. Traditionally, a leader needs to be seen as someone with a firm hand on the tiller and not someone given to outbursts of emotion.

Displaying negative emotions, such as dissing former employees publicly, is almost never a good idea. In this scenario, a business leader who can’t hold his personal opinions in check will not be seen as a stable, in-control manager. Fictional case in point: Succession’s Logan Roy. Non-fictional: Elon Musk.

Nevertheless, asking for help—showing signs of vulnerability—can have the effect of bringing stakeholders and/or employees on-side.

Edmond Mellina, of Toronto-based Transitus Management Consulting, writes “it’s amazing to see what happens during a change initiative when a leader admits to his team he is unsure about the exact route forward and asks for help. By doing so, he is exhibiting wholesome emotions. The result is that followers become instantly engaged… As they progress, they feel a strong ownership of the vision and the plans.”

However, the effectiveness of shedding tears as part of an exec comms strategy is open to debate, especially in such polarized times. The most effective approach may be what’s known as “bounded authenticity” — showing vulnerability but within defined constraints.

For example, Brendan Wallake’s crying post has received more than 10,000 comments and nearly 60,000 reactions. While some supported Wallake, many others mocked his post, calling him “out of touch” and “cringe-worthy” or suggesting that he focus on helping his former employees rather than on how the situation had affected him.

Wellake responded to the criticism by issuing an apology for his sharing. “Yes, I am the crying CEO. No, my intent was not to make it about me or victimize myself. I am sorry it came across that way,” he said.

Wallake, said Spicer, the professor of organizational behavior, appeared to be navigating a delicate balance between too much authenticity and not enough.

“Ideally, what this guy should have done is use bounded authenticity, where he was a bit honest about the mistakes he’d made and he’ll admit to this, but then not turning it into a pity party about himself.”

CEOs have to make tough decisions all the time. They are also under pressure to be authentic. Leaders who consider sharing genuine emotion in a public forum need to think about the consequences, and whether or not such sharing will do more good than harm to both their, and their company’s, reputation. Or the tears they shed may end up being for their own loss of leadership status.



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