Few symbols are more powerful than tears at the top.
On Tuesday, President Obama was somber as he recited familiar episodes of recent gun violence. His face began to crumple when he arrived-;you could see how he dreaded that moment-;at Newtown, and the 20 children murdered there. He blinked and pursed his lips. He paused-;not for effect-;and wiped away a tear. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.” Then, cheeks still slicked, he called on Congress and the American people to stand up to the gun lobby, knowing that Congress will likely do nothing.
We want our leaders to be stronger and smarter than we are-;but no less human. Research reported by the American Psychological Association shows that men cry about once a month and women about five times. People cry in response to strong emotions; and leaders often speak publicly when feelings run high. It’s surprising, really, that they don’t cry more often onstage or on-camera. Even if leaders don’t choke up before us, statistics suggest they sob in private.
It can be galvanizing when our political leaders manifest universal grief-;or joy, though such moments are, sadly, rare. Soaring oratory inspires us. But words are, in the end, just words. Tears are primal and-;onion invective notwithstanding-;tears are true.
Tears can strengthen rather than dilute forceful calls for action. “Showing empathy and vulnerability makes a leader seem stronger, not weaker,” says John Gerzema, CEO of BAV Consulting, a specialist in branding. Gerzema’s book The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future argues that people increasingly prefer leaders who demonstrate feminine traits and values rather than tough, alpha qualities associated with men. Emotional displays that would once have raised eyebrows now moisten eyeballs as people mirror the sentiments of their recognizably human leaders. Such displays are “particularly powerful when it’s someone who doesn’t usually do that, like Obama,” says Gerzema. (The characterization “No-Drama Obama” is used both to praise and criticize the President.)
Of course, tears can also be unnerving. We reasonably expect leaders to exert high degrees of personal control: it’s OK to leak but not to gush. After sinking for a moment in the soft sands of grief, leaders must immediately remount the firm ground of intent. If the issue is sufficiently large and intractable, leaders can choke up in frustration so long as they also exhort their audiences’ help, says Gerzema. But for a leader to cry publicly while expressing despair-;that would be terrifying.
Tears shed out of personal irritation or disappointment are best kept hidden. Steve Jobs often cried when thwarted in some minor goal or ambition, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography. But Jobs is unusual in the extent to which his flaws fed our fascination-;especially with his famous intensity. In general, we want leaders who reflect our better angels, not our petty imps. Sheryl Sandberg tells women it’s OK to cry at work. Perhaps. But context matters. If you’re a leader, you don’t want people to suspect you’re overwhelmed.
Entrepreneurs are arguably more comfortable with emotion than are other business leaders. They talk a lot about passion and dark nights of the soul, and are typically prouder of their companies than corner-office hired hands-;and more personally invested. For those reasons, entrepreneurs are also more likely than other leaders to cry for joy. “Yesterday I was having a discussion with my sales team about the direction of the company,” says Jay Steinfeld, founder of window-coverings business Blinds.com. “And as I talked I felt so much gratitude and so excited about the opportunities we’ve been given that I started tearing up inside. I’m sure the sentiment came through from the expression on my face.”
Steinfeld has no qualms about crying in public. For a decade after his wife died, he regularly choked up when mentioning her-;even in speaking engagements. “I am as tough as anyone,” says Steinfeld. “I will tell people exactly what I mean to do, and I fight back when I have to. But if you are telling the truth about yourself and you are feeling sentimental or sad-;why hold that back?”