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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- 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)