A week ago today a 20-year old man was found dead in a fraternity on campus. I felt compelled to touch on it in my leadership class. All sixty of my students write papers weekly that reflect their desire to lead and grow as leaders. Here was a chance.
In slide 1 I wrote, LEADERSHIP OFTEN ENGAGES DEEP FEELINGS.
How, I wondered out loud, can you deal with Israel and Palestine, immigration, sexual assault, global climate change, taxes, or whether to put up a stop sign on the corner — without dealing with emotions? Emotions rule, no matter how detached and analytic we may appear. Then I asked, “how do you [leaders] feel about the news from the fraternity over the weekend?”
It grew VERY HEAVY in that room. There was a lot of sadness rumbling. Confusion was jagging. Fear reverberated. Determination and hope blipped.
I asked them not to turn away. Too often leaders point us away from our painful emotion. I think it’s fairly well accepted — well beyond my progressive friends — that President Bush did this with the Iraq war, pointing the desperation, sadness, and vulnerability we felt away from the tough emotional and adaptive challenges we face in a globally-connected and terror-plagued world (and into a war in the wrong place). Michael Moore mocked Bush for being stunned when he was interrupted from reading children a story, to be told by an aide about the planes at the WTC on 911. But I’d guess Bush anticipated the pain and fear of a nation. It’s easy for me to say he moved when he should have contemplated and contemplated when he should have moved. I can’t imagine the amount of pressure and emotion he conducted.
What should I have done when I could intuitively FEEL how powerfully my little circle of 60 students felt about the death of a 20-year old a few hundred feet from where we were meeting? I’ll tell you next week.
But for now, I just want to celebrate the question. The question was posed to me by Miranda, one of the most piercing and reflective 22-year olds I have ever taught, “What is the role of a leader,” she asked during office hours, “when people are feeling the kind of deep emotions that were present in our class?”
Her question is THE question in so many situations. For example: for any parent who’s wanted to spank an out-of-control kid, for any boss who’s wanted to fire all their confused workers, for any teacher who’s at wits end with an acting-out student, for any worker who finds out their desperate boss is lying; what is to be done with all this emotion? And please note that the emotion pulses at BOTH ends of all four of those examples.
I open the floor to you. Next week I will share some possible avenues we might explore because — not if, as my title says — Emotional Leadership is not an oxymoron! Hit the comment button and tell a story where you got it right leading when there was great emotion, as you
Lead with your best self!