A few days ago, it dawned on me that for the past several weeks I had been feeling vaguely anxious, uneasy and sad.
I hate saying that. It’s not how I want to see myself. It’s not how I want others, especially those I lead, to view me.
All this came clear after a friend sent me a clip of the comedian Louis C.K. making a appearance on Conan O’Brien last week. Talk show banter is nothing if not trivial. This was one of those rare moments in which something profound slips through all the glibness and joking.
Louis C.K. got on a riff – take a look for yourself – which was ostensibly about the dangers of texting while driving. Why is it, he mused, that we’re so glued to our digital devices? Unexpectedly, he wandered into deeper waters and began talking about how we’re addicted to our digital lives in order to avoid the feelings that might otherwise rise up in our quiet moments.
“You’re in your car,” he went on to say, “and you start going, ‘Oh no, here it comes … I’m alone’ … It starts to visit on you, this sadness … That’s why we text and drive. I look around, and pretty much 100 percent of people are texting … People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone, because it’s so hard.”
No wonder I’d been resisting acknowledging my own uncomfortable feelings. They just didn’t square with my self-image, and especially not with my sense of myself as a leader. Think about the virtues we’ve traditionally admired in our (mostly male) leaders: optimism, confidence, strength, decisiveness and self-control. And how much we disparage their negative opposites: pessimism, self-doubt, weakness, indecisiveness and over-sharing.
I understand that writing about this subject is risky, and that it’s easy to dismiss this topic as touchy-feely and self-indulgent. But I also believe these conversations don’t happen nearly enough in the workplace. Pushing negative feelings away doesn’t make them disappear, and they often end up wreaking havoc.
When the world feels threatening, I tend to move to “fight” mode. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen often. But over the past several weeks, I’ve been defending against feelings of vulnerability by defaulting to fight: demanding more of others, getting impatient and irritable more quickly and finding fault with people for small stuff.
And then along comes Louis C.K. to point this out to me. Just becoming aware of what I’d been doing and why by acknowledging it to myself allowed me to feel the vulnerability more directly. I started to sit with it, instead of fighting it. And nothing terrible happened. Instead, I felt lighter.
Just when I was beginning to feel better, one of the senior executives at my company came to see me. He was angry and said that I hadn’t treated him well in several interactions over the past couple of weeks. As he said it, I knew he was right. I felt bad, but not defensive. When he finished, I simply apologized. We talked about how to avoid letting it get to that point again. I felt the tension between us seep away.
We all have our internal struggles, and they affect those around us, whether we acknowledge what’s going on. I see this every day in the work I do in organizations. The tensions that leaders feel are mostly unacknowledged, but they take a silent toll in the workplace.
Paradoxically, our inclination to push away uncomfortable feelings gives them more power over us. Conversely, what we’re willing to see, we have the power to influence.
We also do ourselves no favors by choosing sides between virtues. Optimism, confidence, strength, decisiveness and self-control are undeniably important qualities for leaders. But so are their positive opposites: realism, humility, vulnerability, flexibility and openness.
The best leaders – the leaders we need most – learn to balance those virtues.
Louis C.K. understands what it means to hold those opposites. “Sadness is poetic,” he went on to say. “You’re lucky to live sad moments. Then I had happy feelings, because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness.”
I had defaulted into “strength” the past several weeks, not just to protect myself from feeling weak, but also, unwittingly, to convince those in my company that I had everything under control. I would have done better to balance my assertiveness with vulnerability – to be more real. That, after all, is what really makes other people feel truly safe.