The Soul of a Leader

January 8, 2008
Since when is a brief glimpse into a leader’s soul enough to shake our confidence in his emotional suitability for the Oval Office?  The honest answer is:  never. A rare glimpse into the soul of a strong, seasoned male leader would only reinforce his humanity.  He would go up a notch or two in our eyes for being “strong enough” to show a little emotion.   

But change the gender of the leader and the rules change instantly.  How is it that :45 seconds of Senator Clinton baring a bit of her soul, showing us the emotion and passion behind her presidential aspirations have become a defining moment of her historic campaign?

For decades, the knock on Hillary Clinton has always been that she’s “too tough, unemotional, lacking charisma and charm.”  No one challenges her credentials, brain power, courage or command of the issues.   Those are common knowledge after years of watching her work on the national and global stage.

It would be hard to name another leader of her stature who has been tested so intensely under the national microscope.  Her strength and grace under the kind of pressure most of us can never imagine has been demonstrated over and over and over. And yet, one moment of humanity before media cameras and suddenly her emotional stability is suspect.

At what point in our nation’s social evolution will we be courageous enough to begin to question our old template for measuring leaders?   As we prepare to elect a new president, a leader who will have authority over nuclear warheads, the strongest military force in the history of the world, and the ability to impact the future of our planet as well as the lives of the over six billion human beings who call it home, shouldn’t we be looking for signs of humanity in that leader as well as strength, vision, experience, intellect and courage?  

Most women are very comfortable with tears and emotions.  We don’t mind showing them to one another or those we trust.  Anyone who knows me well would tell you that I’m one of them. But they also know better than to mistake a wetness in my eyes or emotion in my voice as evidence of weakness.

One of the fundamental lessons women of my generation learned when entering the nearly all-male workforce in the 70’s was:  “Never let ‘em see you cry.”  We all know better than to show that very normal, real side of ourselves to male colleagues in the public world.  Because tears still make most men uncomfortable.  They misunderstand them, over-react to them, perhaps because tears remain so unacceptable in the male playbook.   

Leadership gurus have been making millions for the last decade touting their “breakthrough insights” on the importance of collaboration and inclusion as new leadership skills.  These are natural to women, who are far less hierarchical or deferential than men, qualities that have gotten well-intentioned women leaders in trouble in corporate America for “not being team players.”

Professional women have been adjusting and learning to play by men’s rules for decades. And we’re getting pretty darn good at it.  But learning isn’t just one way.  There is plenty that men can learn from women, as well.  What if we start by beginning to recognize that the ability to show humanity and emotion in the proper context is strength not weakness in a highly evolved leader? The day that men can begin to master that important leadership skill and women can stop punishing other women for not always acting like a man is a day that we will all move forward as leaders.

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