Should Execs Get Emotional at Work?

Last Updated Feb 12, 2010 7:24 PM EST

There was an emotional scene in last Sunday's 'Undercover Boss' where Waste Management president and COO Larry O'Donnell, posing as an out-of-work construction worker, gets a little teary-eyed when a mentally challenged customer unexpectedly reminds him of his daughter.

It was a touching scene that clearly did nothing to detract from Larry's leadership cache. On the contrary, it demonstrated emotional accessibility and genuine humility, all good executive traits, in my opinion. That said, it does beg the question of just how emotional executives should get before they either make employees feel uncomfortable or begin to lose that leadership edge.
Here are a few anecdotes from my experience with CEOs of public companies to shed some light on the subject. But first, let's be clear on what we're talking about here. Without getting into textbook psychobabble, let's assume we're talking about openly demonstrating feelings like happy, sad, angry, scared, excited, that sort of thing.

While I've seen lots of CEOs exhibit anger, and not infrequently directed at me, one particular CEO comes to mind. This guy was perpetually on the verge of anger, but that was largely of the "acting out" variety due to his own "issues." Still, it bears mentioning that his tirades terrified employees to the point of being traumatic. Ultimately, it was his downfall. And while I'm not entirely sure of the impact his angry rants had on the company's performance, his dysfunctionality, of which anger was one aspect, certainly did the company great harm.

His replacement, on the other hand, had a great sense of humor. Not over-the-top, mind you, but more along the lines of what I've seen from the likes of fatherly, mentor-type leaders like Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett or Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher. There were indeed times when this CEO had reason to be sad or angry, but rather than show it in a way that might have a negative ripple effect, he would simply became a bit "short" or more solemn than usual. He was what I would call a model CEO in terms of displays of emotion.

Perhaps the most emotionally accessible CEO I've ever worked for was a guy who, ironically, was known for being stoic and staid. But once, during a celebration speech following a major appeals court victory that vindicated the company after years of media vilification, he choked up while commending the employees on their perseverance and commitment during tough times. And his sense of humor, albeit dry (after all, he was Canadian), was evident on a regular basis.

To summarize, I'd offer two rules for executive emotion in the workplace:

  1. Feelings and emotions are every executive's, indeed, every human's inner guidance system. To be out of touch with them means to be truly out of touch with yourself and with what's going on around you. And if those feelings should, on occasion and at appropriate times and places, become evident, you and your company are all the better for it.
  2. That said, while your employees, shareholders, constituents, whatever, are indeed adults, they do keep a very close eye on their leaders. It's not entirely different from the way a child might pay close attention to the moods of a parent. Moreover, they look to you for guidance, emotional and otherwise. So remember, you want to inspire and motivate folks, not freak or creep them out.