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Leonard Cohen’s Music: Masking Emotions vs. Authentic Leadership

Leonard Cohen’s Music: Masking Emotions vs. Authentic Leadership

I wrote this article in 2012, but the music of Leonard Cohen and the ideas in the article remain relevant today.

Last weekend, my husband and I stopped at a Starbucks where, after placing our orders, my husband picked up and purchased the new Leonard Cohen CD, Old Ideas.  If you are not familiar with Cohen, his music is more often spoken than sung. His lyrics are his own poetry drawn from years of depression, religious pursuit, and social and political awareness. His themes are love, betrayal, desire and faith (Leonard Cohen, 2012).

The words are dark with sardonic humor and religious references. The music is rich with imagery and his compelling craggy voice. He continues to seek answers to seemingly unanswerable questions.

In his song, Darkness, for example, Cohen sings:

… I caught the darkness
Drinking from your cup
I said: Is this contagious?
You said: Just drink it up.
…I should have seen it coming
It was right behind your eyes
You were young and it was summer
I just had to take a dive
 
Winning you was easy
But darkness was the prize…
I used to love the rainbow
I used to love the view
I loved the early morning
I’d pretend that it was new
But I caught the darkness baby
And I got it worse than you.

As I listened to the poetry and the pure passion in his words, I began to think about the depth of emotion I heard in his music. His appeal stems from those often-gloomy lyrics and honest and very human feelings he shares with his listeners. Because I work with the emotional side of leadership, I wondered about the level and type of emotion that leaders can honestly reveal as they work with others to change the future. (Yes, I do find it difficult to detach from my work for very long.)

I value his honesty, and at the same time, I wondered whether leaders can be as emotionally authentic as Cohen as they attempt to build relationships and create and share their visions to move others forward.  Can they show darkness and uncertainty as Cohen does? To what extent can they show honest, yet contradictory, emotions such as anger, fear, resentment, frustration and sadness when they recognize that their honesty may detract from group success? Conversely, can they build trust if they display emotions they do not genuinely feel?

I am a strong proponent of authentic leadership. I believe it is only through honest interaction that one can build the trust necessary to work successfully with others. However, I believe a level of emotional authenticity such as Cohen displays reduces a leader’s effectiveness. Leaders must understand their own emotions and they can question their decisions, but they have an obligation to show confidence, and they must create an emotional climate that encourages and moves people to take action. This climate most often draws from enthusiasm and conviction rather than darkness and uncertainty.

I have heard leaders say, “Fake it till you make it.” Leaders frequently have to boost their energy levels and show enthusiasm that may be lacking on the inside. Required emotions often come from learning to manage one’s emotions and summoning the emotions necessary for a given situation. What happens when these emotions do not show up? When does “faking it” or managing emotion become manipulation? How do leaders make those decisions?

I am not sure I can provide satisfactory answers to those questions. Leaders  must build trust with others. As leaders consider their own emotions and work to be authentic, they must still maintain a strong vision of what can be. So too, they must hold an awareness that their emotions affect other people. “Emotions are contagious. We catch them and we spread them.” (Olalla, 2005)If we spread dark emotions, can we be successful leaders?

Like the very important question of when motivation becomes manipulation, leaders must consider when they are being genuine, to what extent they should mask non-productive emotions, and decide how to resolve those conflicts when they arise.

The easy way is to decide that the end justifies the means.  However, one must look further than that. I concluded that each situation is as different as the people involved, and each leader must answer the questions in his own way. I believe, however, there are some guidelines:

  • The first is the dictum for doctors: Do no harm.  Analyze conflicting emotions to determine if they signal a risk to oneself or someone else. If risk is involved, a leader must fully consider it and disclose it to those who may be affected.
  • The second is the duration or extent of the emotional veneer. Masking one’s emotions frequently or extensively reduces trust and the opportunity to lead.
  • The third is being true to oneself and one’s mission. If a leader has a clearly defined personal and professional mission, managing emotions is less an issue. The desire to move forward and the focus on how one feels about a particular path is usually clear.

As I continue to listen and enjoy Cohen’s music, I wonder how other leaders resolve the conflicts between authenticity and productivity. If you have thoughts on this topic, I would enjoy hearing from you.

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REFERENCES

  • Leonard Cohen. (2012). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Cohen
  • Olalla, J. (Performer). (2005, March). From Knowledge to Wisdom. Reston, Virginia.

Photograph by Rama licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France. Leonard Cohen, during the Geneva concert of the 2008 tour, 27 October 2008  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leonard_Cohen_2187-edited.jpg)

 

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Comments (4)

  1. Dan

    Very thoughtful, Lyn, as always! I’ve seen some very important breakthroughs happen when a leader becomes more open, acknowledging in an honest way the feelings he or she has not disclosed earlier. But disclosure, per se, for any person in any situation is not always the right answer either. The question, it seems to me, is the motivation for the disclosure — it is to open a door to trust? Is there a commitment to work it all the way through with others? Is it based in “good faith”? Or is it “dump and run”? I think people can accept a lot, honor a lot, and are willing to support a leader if being real is not just an excuse for over-using some form of personal power that carries an affect that disables others. A leader, for example, who claims to be a victim or martyr, one who uses truth as an excuse for expressions of judgment and anger, expressions of cynicism and sarcasm, or efforts to “make happy” when things are going wrong — all of these expressions, which I classify as overuse of one form of power or another, and all of which carry various emotions, backfire for leaders.

    For example, a leader who acknowledges, “I’m depressed” in a way that explains his/her behavior while not excusing it is one thing. But the leader who acts out his/her depression with statements or behaviors that communicate the depression without directly acknowledging it and taking responsibility for it, is likely to be in trouble and, I think, suffer credibility problems. The first leader makes it easier for others to detach, to discuss impacts, to not take it personally, and not, in fact, have to accept the emotion as a personal burden. The second type of leader makes his/her emotions a burden for the team. The first person is more “differentiated” and can be more accepted for the humanness of the disclosure. The second is acting as if people are simply an extension of him/her.

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Dan, I appreciate your expansion of the discussion to include the motivation for revealing emotions. You have expressed that very effectively, and I believe your ideas are important for leader to consider. The idea of differentiating between types of emotional disclosure helps a leader make better decisions about what is appropriate and what is not. Thanks, as always, for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.

  2. Wendy Appel

    Thank you for reintroducing Leonard Cohen and his incredible lyrics. His message is so true as you said, moods catch. What are the moods we want to spread? You pose an important question and I am not sure there is a clear answer. As coaches and consultants, we also need to be asking ourselves the same question–when do we use ourselves as instruments–share of ourselves and how much?

    It seems that one of the key points you are making is to manage our emotional reactions and simultaneously be authentic. For a leader/for all of us, it is to be able to distinguish authenticity from reactivity / being triggered. Then it becomes about context–time and place to offer more of ourselves. I think that when we are present to ourselves, we intuitively know what is right speech and right action. Now that’s a skill worth developing!

    It could be a false dichotomy to say it is either authenticity or productivity. Both / And? I have seen lack of authenticity decrease productivity–tremendously.

    Thanks for the well written and thought-provoking post!

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Wendy, Thanks for taking the time to comment. You have introduced a very important idea–that it does not have to be an either/or dichotomy. I fully agree. When you approach emotion as being authentic or reactive, as you have suggested, I believe the choice of emotional state is more clear. When a leader looks at time and place and being present, emotion can be more authentic and also can inspire the moods he or she wants to convey.

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