Great Leaders Know How to Handle Their Emotions

But that probably doesn’t mean what you think.
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It’s an odd thing to break into tears while chairing an elder’s meeting.

Before our gathering, I’d done my homework and had all the facts we needed to make decisions. But when we came to an agenda item about staffing, I became overwhelmed by my feelings—care for the staff person involved, worries that I had failed, fear about financial ramifications. I bit my lip to control my tears, but that has never really worked. With embarrassment I discovered that I had brought the meeting to a standstill. But my tears revealed the complexity of the issue and (once I stopped apologizing) the conversation took on a new dimension.

There are few things that make us feel more vulnerable than our own emotions. Anger, fear, sadness all knock us off our feet right when we’re trying to look like leaders. If we have been told that leadership is always strong, how do we respond to this breaking in of emotion? Is emotion something to control, or does it reveal opportunities for God to show himself?

Empathy v. Sympathy

Last week, I was part of a workshop on understanding poverty. We heard heartbreaking stories: parents working long hours but unable to make ends meet, dreaming of change but stuck in old cycles. Afterward the facilitator asked, “How does this make you feel?” I wondered whether people would say “sad,” “frustrated,” or “angry.” All I could think was “heavy.”

But the answers given were not about feelings. The first response was, “I think that happened to those people because . . .” And the second: “That reminds me of . . .”

I was still frustrated by that conversation when we watched a video about empathy by Brené Brown. In it she says, “Empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection . . . Empathy is feeling with people. . . . Empathy is a choice. It’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” On the other hand, she says, the sympathetic response changes the subject or tries to fix the problem. This seemed ironic right after the two responses that had changed the subject and tried to fix the problem. If we want to connect, we need empathy, which requires us to connect with our own feelings.

Which does not always feel great.

Gender and Emotion

As I reflected on the experience, I realized that the two unsatisfying responses were from men, and I jumped to conclusions: “Typical men! Out of touch with their emotions. Always wanting to look strong and in control.” But before the day was over, I was humbled. While hearing a church member’s story of family abuse, I had the same “fix it” response: “Well, what you need to do is . . .” Her problem was messy and I wanted to clean it up—quickly, before I felt something.


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