How Unhappy People Lead
I prefer happiness to sadness. But what if sadness is an asset?
Martin Luther King Jr. tried to commit suicide twice before he was 13. (Time)
(Winston Churchill’s) creative-depressive personality meant that writing (or painting, or bricklaying) was a way of keeping the “black dog” of depression at bay. (Telegraph)
On January 23 (1841) Lincoln wrote to his law partner in Washington: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. (The Atlantic)
Unhappy, but leading:
King, Churchill, and Lincoln shined light into darkness.
Sadness – in us – enables us to face sadness around us. There’s no room for unicorns and fairy dust when challenges loom large and times are dark.
“Individuals, (Lincoln) had learned from his own “severe experience,” could succeed in “the great struggle of life” only by enduring failures and plodding on with a vision of improvement.” (The Atlantic)
You might wring your hands in worry, but successful leaders answer worry with vision.
Battling the “black dog” builds resilience.
Sadness with resolve is credibility during crisis. When the nation is in peril, it’s silly to be frivolous.
Successful leaders acknowledge the worst and move forward with their best.
How might unhappiness be a leadership asset?
When is unhappiness problematic for leaders?
It would seem that leaders have already had to lead themselves through some difficulties before being able to lead others.
Arrogance, love of power, and ego are still the defining characteristics of leadership for some people and institutions. Examples abound of leaders who lead with authority and confidence and little emotional depth.
Sadness is “only” an asset if one uses it to move forward to something that produces happiness.
Discontent has the ability to either incapacitate or inspire. Leaders look at discontentment and ask “Why am I discontent, and what am I going to do about it?” They see it as a growth opportunity to push past stagnancy and mediocrity. They are able to be real with themselves and make the choice to overcome instead of being overwhelmed. Leaders who instill this same ability to be real, but with vision, with their staff, will never lack for opportunity’s and innovative ideas as many innovations are born of desperation.
Always enjoy your posts. This one reminded me of something I wrote several years ago. You might enjoy it and, more particularly, the book that informed it. https://tokeepthingswhole.blogspot.com/2012/08/wholesome-madness-and-leadership.html.
I have found that the idea of there being meaning behind or in our suffering (often found in reflection) helps sustain me through those times that are dark. Victor Frankl’s work in this area is where I turn to.
Unhappiness can be a reality check for leaders. For those of us under a strong leader, it might seem they are invincible or unwavering in the midst of chaos. But unhappiness, just like age, is a good equalizer because it has no restrictions on potential individuals. So if a leader has been through struggles in their life, they might be able to relate to their staff or those they influence in ways others can’t. If you can understand where I’m coming and provide me a better way to address my concerns because you lived through the same, I’ll be more likely to follow you.
I believed I posted a comment last week about anger being an effective asset that leaders can utilize. I think your synopsis about sadness (or unhappiness in general) is to the same point except more internal within the leader. The podcast I heard on NPR was about leaders harnessing their anger and directing it toward their followers in a strategic method to yield results. Your analysis of sadness within a leader is more about that leader needing something concrete on which to base his motivations, and I think that is a great way to look at it. I especially like the part about empathy, and how it takes someone to experience great sadness themselves to understand how someone else might feel. I think that is probably the most important way unhappiness can be a leadership asset.
Battling the “black dog” builds resilience. – we recently adopted a black lab puppy. There were days in the beginning that I thought he was too much for us. But I re-trained myself in puppy obedience and became much more patient, artful in distracting, and remembered to go with the flow . Some of those lessons are very useful at work as well…