The Question No One Asks Leaders
It was a moment of authenticity that I’ll never forget.
I was shocked when General Dempsey, retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “The question I wish people would have asked me is, ‘How do you feel?’” (In the interview room at the World LEADERS Group.)
A few months ago, a successful CIO shared the story of listening to his CEO talk through an issue. The CIO, toward the end of the conversation, asked, “How do you feel about that?”
The CEO just started talking. Before they hung up, he said, “Thank you.”
I joke about being a stoic New Englander. We don’t have feelings.
Leaders who don’t have feelings look down on those who do.
Maybe you think feelings are for weak leaders. In the rush to deliver results and solve problems, feelings are left at the door. You may think it doesn’t matter how you feel. Do your work.
Feelings matter because emotion is energy.
When you rule out emotion, you throw cold water on emotional energy. Even when emotion is dark, finding a path forward reignites energy.
Connect with others by providing space for them to express emotion.
- Don’t feel the need to dampen joy because people don’t see all the problems you see.
- Ask, “What’s making you feel so joyful?”
- Don’t feel the need to solve emotion when it’s dark.
- Ask, “What’s behind your frustration?”
- Affirm what you hear. “I see how you could feel that way.”
Bonus: Show respect when you see vulnerability in others.
Before asking leaders how they feel:
- Build trusting relationships. Don’t ask the boss about her feelings on your first day.
- Embrace a listening ear. I hate it when someone tries to fix my feelings.
- Demonstrate the ability to keep secrets.
What suggestions and/or warnings do you have about asking leaders how they feel?
Your last paragraph is significant, you earn your way into the emotions door through time, consistency, being genuine….moving too early rings as potential manipulation (to me).
Thanks Ken. I don’t want someone that I don’t know walking up to me and asking how I feel. I would add, that if they did, I’d tell them. But, I’m skeptical.
Perhaps another idea to add is share your own emotions to create space for others. Of course, don’t be a whiner.
I wonder if you should touch on the wisdom of timing before asking someone about their feelings?
Regards and goodwill blogging.
Thanks scatter. Thanks for bringing up timing. I wouldn’t ask a leader how they feel when they are in the middle of feeling strong emotion. 🙂
Team members’ motivation is so important but something no leader can ‘DO’ – only enable. In Dan Pink’s book, “Drive,” he writes about the three elements of a working environment that a leader can provide / control that will enable the intrinsic motivation of team members. Those three elements are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Those excited team members are feeding on these elements, most especially purpose! Feelings have a central role in any successful effort!!!
Thanks John. Love Pink’s work. His follow up to Drive, It’s Human to Sell, is also really good.
I’m glad you used the term “feelings” in your comment. I chose it because it’s more uncomfortable for me than emotion.
I’ve heard it said before “the only time we don’t have feelings is when we’re dead.” Feelings and emotions are always playing a part in (and influencing) our lives, whether or not we acknowledge them. We raise our self-awareness and efficacy by acknowledging their existence…and as leaders we give others permission to do the same.
Thanks Cara. That last phrase sings. We give others permission to become more authentic when we acknowledge our own emotion.
I believe in the concept feelings in the work place is a liability. I was in an environment that my leader was emotional and wanted friendship as a barrier or shield from other concerns or people. In the end, the person asked me to do something that lacked integrity and ethics in the name of friendship. Emotions allow people to let others slide when they should accept responsibility for their actions. To often emotions bring out the lack of focus, commitment, and determination to do what needs to be done and let the obstacles interfere in the daily choices that are made. What you should write about is the Chapter of Synergy in Steven Covey’s book “The Habits of High Successful People”. To look for happiness, read the book by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale on “The Power of Positive Thinking” and Tony Robbins on “Awaken the Giant Within”. Tony does talk about positive emotion in a constructive manner and disregard negative ones. I always believe and will preach the phrase “Cooler Heads Prevail”. Think of it this way, the Apollo movie with Tom Hanks showed how to focus on the task at hand to succeed with ideas instead of emotions, which lead to Gene Kranz writing the book “Failure is Not an Option”
Thanks Dave. I’m so glad you joined in. I think the distinction between emotion and emotional is important for this topic.
It’s hard to imagine an emotionless leader. Pretending negative emotions don’t exist isn’t helpful. Leaders who pretend things are happy when they aren’t are out of touch.
Thanks again for adding your insights. I really appreciate it.
It’s one thing to have feelings. It is quite another to act on them. I wouldn’t want a leader who made decisions based entirely on feelings and emotion, but I also wouldn’t want one who was devoid of feelings and emotion or refused to acknowledge they exist. I think the name for that would be “robot”.
Hi Dan. To clarify about negative emotions is that to acknowledge them is one thing as you and others describe, but to see adults in a childish behavior causes conflict. For superiors to treat subordinates as children instead of working professionals is counter productive, which describes the phrase that you can’t be out of touch. The best behavior is not to act on the emotional aspect that leads done a negative path. Giving a subordinate a job well done to someone will bring their confidence up, builds a positive outcome. But giving credence to negative childish outbursts from adults, well, someone has to be the adult and not do so.
Thanks Dave. On this we certainly agree.
Hello Dan, I just found your blog through this post. I love what you have to say. This discussion reminds me of the emotional intelligence ideas Daniel Goleman, and now others, talk about: the recognition of emotions both in yourself and others and then knowing when and how to act on them.
Simple, to the point and so often overlooked or ignored. “Feelings” in the work place is often considered a bad word but failing to acknowledge and consider it is bad leadership. Great post, Dan!
Thanks SGT. I appreciate the idea that acknowledging feelings is part of leadership. I should add that it’s not an attempt to transform leaders into analyst or psychologists. I’m glad you jumped in on this one.
Great post Dan and maybe ,just maybe, the feeling part of ourselves is not particularly valued particularly in some organisations.
I have to say here in Au , there is a Royal Commission into institutional child sex abuse – one of the key church leaders at the time is now a big wig in the Vatican.
I don’t doubt he is a decent human being but his testimony,body language and general demeanour was so lacking in empathy it really really offended and disgusted people.
We need reason and emotion – an apparently emotionless leader is as somebody said earlier a robot.
Personally, I “feel” a lot of people are scared of and thus disconnected from their feelings when I believe they drive everything we do/say, albeit subconsciously.
Naming our feelings in an ordinary way is powerful and gives others the freedom to do so also.
Eg when I go to visit Head Office, I always feel like the country cousin and I say so – it’s in fun and it’s nothing to do with my colleagues behaviours and all to do with my country background and honouring that.
A bit of a rant today!
So often , during times of conflict and argument, I’ve heard those in power say that we need to take emotions out of the picture. This is and always will be to me a strong warning signal that problems lie deeper and higher in the organization.
The president of my company stopped me in the hallway to talk to me. I presumed I had screwed up since he never stopped employees in the hallway to just say hi or to chat. I asked, “What did I do?” He replied, “Why are you the only employee (we had over 200 employees) to get letters of recommendations from our clients?” I told him, “Whenever a client tells me I did a good job I ask them to send you a note to let you know that I did a good job.” He then said, “Why?” I replied, “I thought you would like to know when your employees did a good job.” He walked away.
It wasn’t until later that he told me he never praises employees because they will then, “come to my office and ask for a raise, so you see.”
Many good engineers become ineffective managers and ineffective managers don’t become effective executives.