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Where Are You Wearing Your Heart?

felt-heart1_300x296.jpgIt came from Shakespeare.

“But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve.
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.”

But Iago’s burst of emotion was not the exclusive province of the Bard of Avon. Today, we suffer through an epidemic of overexposed feelings, naked psyches and (I hate this expression) “letting it all hang out.” People assume the right to spray the walls with raw feelings on every conceivable subject, subjects that were once either banned or at least handled very delicately if it became necessary to talk about them. Going back to the Phil Donahue Show, a progressive stream of tabloid talk shows like the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Jerry Springer Show have found traction in our culture. They delve shamelessly into whatever prurient, perverse and deviant practice they can uncover, and recognize no boundaries of good taste or disgusting taboos. Driving it all is not only the shock value of the topics covered, but also the society-wide encouragement to blab, rat, snitch, unload and virtually disembowel oneself in front of a voyeuristic world.

Supposedly, this is all very cathartic. Freudian psychoanalysis, to one degree or another, we are told, puts us in touch with our true feelings and helps us understand ourselves better. “Talk about it; take off the mask; be real.” The deeper and darker the secrets, the more we rush to retch them up for public consumption. These offerings, transposed into pop psychology, have led many to revel in giddy transparency. By removing the old artificially imposed inhibitions that kept us locked in a plastic existence, we can finally enjoy personal freedom without pretense. We can say things that previously we only thought about saying. We can use words that used to be minced or redacted altogether. We can parade our long lists of faults and failures before the world. And why not? Nobody will think a thing about it. They will sympathize with us. We can all cry together.

We have not always believed this. George Washington said, “ Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.” Such sentiments are now considered quaint, but careful conversation has long been the standard of wise and prudent people. Most of us—at least those of us with high mileage—had elders who taught us manners and rules governing polite society. We were taught that our private lives were nobody’s business; that we should not openly display our personal feelings; that criticism should be kept low-key and confidential. We were taught to avoid public embarrassment and shame, whether given or received. We were trained to put the best possible face on a difficult situation.

Of course, it became obvious to a thinking public that hush-hush rules did not always serve us well. Unconscionable acts that deserved to be exposed were too often kept hidden from view. Probably all of us have personal knowledge of shameful acts, secret affairs or even criminal behavior that has never seen the light of day. We have seen people who pasted smiles on their faces when, in reality, they had just been devastated by some traumatic event. While some may have been privy to their turmoil, others didn’t have a clue because nothing was said and no facial expression let on that anything was amiss. An unwritten rule said that, in the interest of keeping the peace, a person’s inner pain had to be suppressed or even disregarded altogether. “Nobody wants to know about your personal problems,” we were scolded. The underlying message was “you are not important.” Such failings of our culture have led to much dysfunctionalism. Without getting into the bruising warfare between sociology and psychology, most of us now recognize that people need some kind of mechanism to release their emotions and yet preserve their dignity and position.

Is there a preferred strategy to follow? Should our lives be opened or closed? Are we better off to unburden ourselves of pent up emotions, or should we labor under the shroud of mystery and repression? Should we vent and curse the consequences, or withhold our feelings and live in the shadows of fear? Neither of these options seems very attractive. For those in leadership, the answer to the dilemma can be perilous to career or destructive to self and family. Recent history is dotted with such stories. For example, in the interest scoring points with a segment of society, politicians have confessed questionable actions of their past lives only to find that their candor turned voters against them. Ministers, CEO’s, high-ranking bureaucrats, sports legends and screen stars have all discovered that revealing past indiscretions or showing their true feelings can lead to serious falls from public grace.

The answer, I would suggest, is a compromise, a third way that is especially sensitive to the needs of those in leadership or those who need to set an example to developing personalities in their lives. We need to discern the differences in situations in which we can be totally transparent from those where prudence dictates presenting a discreet front to the world. The key lies in determining the best interests of everyone involved. For the spiritual leader, the best interests must be further tied to the spiritual well-being of those people. I contend, therefore, that giving in to our emotions has to be a function of our circumstances. If we find ourselves in a counselor’s office, or if we are in the company of a tried and true friend, “spilling our guts” is the only way to go. In front of our family, teaching a class of teenagers, or in an executive board meeting, however, guarding our feelings may be supremely important.

Moreover, venting our emotions must be qualified by what kind of emotions they are, i.e. anger, fear, love, joy, etc. It is okay to be seen shedding tears at a funeral or when someone has been hit hard by a personal tragedy. It is probably not okay to cry publicly over a rival’s criticism or a downturn in the business cycle. It is acceptable to show anger or displeasure when an employee makes a major blunder that he or she should have known not to make. It is not acceptable to show anger or displeasure because of a fight with a spouse or a waiter accidentally spilled some water. A vast difference of perception exists between sensitivity and instability. Unfortunately, too many leaders fail to discern this difference and seriously undermine their ability to lead. Success often hinges upon keeping one’s heart securely buttoned up behind one’s coat rather than wearing it on the sleeve.

It may not always be fair, but most people expect their leaders to model the kind of emotion, feeling and attitude that the entire group should embrace in the face of a challenge or a crisis. Leaders cannot crumple into an emotional heap at such times and expect followers to understand and pick them up. We require leaders to remain resolute, sometimes even impassionate, when trouble threatens. We do not want them to show fear or timidity, regardless of the imminence or intensity of the threat. We want them to be passionate, but not blindly or recklessly so. Leaders must always understand that they have individual futures and the corporate well-being in their hands.

This aspect of leadership not only warrants analysis and understanding, it also calls for a strategy that will ensure right handling of emotion. Historically, colossal failures and widespread suffering have transpired countless times because a leader let his or her emotions become the driving force behind critical decision-making. Conflict, warfare, ill-advised programs and deadly use of force remain in the memory banks of entire nations because their leaders totally abandoned sense and propriety in their conduct. In the following paragraphs, I offer a few basic guidelines by which leaders can measure themselves. They may not cover all the bases, but they do represent a start in thinking about the way leaders ought to lead responsibly and effectively.

Guard emotions that stem from personal matters. If you are upset because of a marital problem or a stressful situation in the family, make sure you put these feelings on hold when you enter your role as a leader. When you show up in public visibly upset because of a personal affair, you inject an unstable feeling into your followers. You may be able to get forgiveness once in a while, but if this becomes routine, people will lose confidence in your ability to lead. Eventually, you will become a joke to them and they will not respond to your leadership initiatives.

Never permit your emotions to become extreme for any reason. If something sad happens, you should not throw yourself on the floor and wallow around screaming and sobbing. If something good happens, running around hugging and kissing everyone may be seen as equally extreme. Extreme responses, whether in grief or celebration, are almost always non-productive. Sometimes the way one responds to an event, even to something good, can be destructive or tragic. Sports heroes, for example, have been known to injure themselves so severely in celebration that they brought their seasons or careers to premature end. A leader’s reaction to news should always be measured so as to convey the right attitude to people, but also keep the situation in control.

Make sure your emotions are appropriate to the situation. The old saying that the punishment ought to fit the crime has some application here. Never give a gold watch to someone who has completed a year’s worth of service, especially when you only gave a slight nod of appreciation to a faithful employee who retired after thirty years. We cannot always program our emotions, but emotions that are shown inappropriately or with bad timing will undermine a leader’s rapport with people. Much of this is intuitive, but insomuch as a response can be learned, it ought to be. Your followers should never look at each other and say, “That was strange,” when talking about your response.

Do not become emotional too easily or quickly. Immediate tears, laughter, anger or fear can cause concern in followers. Most of us equate responses that occur too quickly with instability or lack of control, neither of which benefits a person in a leadership position. A personal tragedy may evoke immediate tears or a show of grief, but matters that have to do with business or organizational issues need to be met with a pause and thoughtfulness before showing how you feel about it. When everyone else erupts in grief or outrage, you need to keep your head on straight. Your overall concern should be to keep the organization or group reasonable and calm. Chaos is seldom a good thing.

Understand that your emotions may be copied by your followers. A leader does not have the luxury of saying, “Just because I flew off the handle did not mean that you had to do the same!” Sorry. The very fact that you flew off the handle gave license to your followers to react the same way. Even more, your people will probably kick up the intensity level a notch or two. If you don’t want everything in your world to fall apart, you have to hold yourself together. Pastors who sow discord or dissension between churches will reap a congregation that is embittered, caustic and mean. Teachers who use sarcasm to deal with students will produce the same characteristic in the class. Leaders are largely responsible for the disposition and attitude in the people whom they lead. Isn’t this the whole point of leadership anyway?

Do not let your emotions be the primary factor in making decisions. When you find yourself in the grip of anger or fear, you will have an overwhelming tendency to act on those emotions rather than back off and reason it out. No one can throw emotion out of the equation altogether, but when emotion becomes the main factor in plotting an action, it will almost definitely result in a regrettable decision. An old saying has it, “He cut off his nose to spite his face.” Meaning: he did something really stupid because he was so angry or insulted. Acting on pure emotion usually comes back to haunt a leader. Instead, a leader should give due recognition to emotion, but then carefully weigh out all the other factors that will comprise the consequences of a chosen course of action. A rash decision may make the emotions feel avenged, but will eventually be judged as folly.

When you cannot curb your emotions, turn the leadership to another. There are times that a leader is so overwhelmed by a personal matter that he or she cannot function. If you find yourself unable to think straight, you are not betraying your followers to temporarily turn the executive position over to a loyal assistant. It is dangerous to remain in control when you are not in the right frame of mind. Do not become a menace to yourself, your followers and the organization by pridefully insisting on staying in charge.

In summary, control is the watchword for a leader’s emotional side. We all understand that emotions cannot be eliminated. Emotions infuse the human experience with love, joy, laughter and appreciation. They also bring us sorrow, tears and grief. Both ends of the spectrum are essential to the fabric of life. Someone without emotion would be less than human. Emotions, however, can be managed. When they are used properly, they add meaning, spice and joy to any endeavor. Improperly used, they cause death and destruction. Like Shakespeare’s Iago, you can learn when to wear your heart on your sleeve. Sometime you can. But, you can also learn when to guard your heart closely. Sometimes you must.

Controlled emotions do not destroy emotions. In fact, controlling your emotions is the way to be certain that your emotions don’t destroy you.

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