What Do You Think A Leader Is?

Ed Zitron 6 min read

Around October 2020, I cracked. Despite being lucky enough to have a steady income, a roof over my head, and not having contracted COVID-19 (I would get it a month later), the compound stress of running the business, moving my family (and two octogenarians) from California to Las Vegas, and then handling a few obtuse personal situations at once would lead me to snap at someone that I worked with. It was a moment of weakness, and I literally compensated them for it, and I still feel deeply guilty about it to this day.

The guilt wasn’t just about the event, but what my job is as a leader and a CEO. The job of a leader is to be emotionally resilient - your bad days should be shared only in the abstract, and your attitude to bad events should be to reassure and support your people. When things are at their worst, you should be the first person to reassure everyone that things will be okay, and if they are not okay, you should reveal that only if there is no avoiding peril. If things are bad, you should share them in such a way that you communicate what’s necessary for people to know, but not terrify them or bring them down with your misery. That’s because you are a leader and the literal last person to be fired - and you are compensated specifically so you can be a sponge for despair and anxiety.

Ironically, I followed this lesson - the most stressful months were March through June by far - but I had failed the other lesson: you, as a leader, need to find a therapist or a priest or someone to whom you can talk to about these problems. Because they are not your workers’ problems, and you do not need to share them. I bottled up all the stress, thinking that simply resolving the problems and moving forward would be fine. It was not, and I have learned to talk about my stress and problems more.

The inspiration behind this protracted rant is a truly bizarre Atlantic article about “the missing emotion from the workplace” - sadness. The article suggests that workplaces do not have space for sadness or despair, and that they should create space for them:

Creating workplaces that make space for these feelings may require rethinking ideals of leadership itself. Researchers know that the emotions bosses express affect workers’ perception of how powerful they are. Those who behave angrily during challenging situations are typically seen as more influential than those who react sadly. Yet a 2009 study by the management professors Juan Madera and D. Brent Smith found that showing sorrow rather than anger sometimes creates better outcomes for leaders, including stronger relationships with their employees and being viewed as more effective.

While I agree that leaders that are honest with their people are generally good, the problem here is that honesty is not the same as trauma dumping, which it certainly seems this article advocates:

Indeed, embracing personal power can help create emotionally healthy and high-performing workplaces. For example, Rick Fox, a charismatic former leader of a Shell oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, found that sharing his fears and shortcomings with his employees, rather than pretending to be an all-powerful boss, boosted his work performance and enriched his personal life. Encouraged by his progress, he arranged for his whole team to go through an intense training program intended to promote openness. Afterward, the guys on the rig started developing genuine connections with one another. They grew more comfortable admitting problems at work, started sharing ideas, and ended up with sky-high productivity levels, contributing to an 84 percent decline in the company’s accident rate, according to a case study by the Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely and the Stanford professor Debra Meyerson, which the radio show Invisibilia also covered.

While the outcome here is good - it’s always good to be honest about challenges - the idea that a leader should share their fears with their workers is…not what a leader does. I’m sorry, but if you are an executive, your “fears” should be shared only with those compensated to hear them, and your workers are not your personal therapist. If your fears are not directly related to them being able to do their work - not tangentially, not thematically, but literally “if I don’t know this my work product will suffer” - you are using them as an emotional punching bag.

Believe it or not, this bizarre “let’s be sad at work” thing gets worse.

Building these practices into workplace culture can be especially helpful. In 2011, a group of management scholars from the CompassionLab published a study on the billing unit of a community-health system in the Midwest. This department’s workers had the dreary job of collecting unpaid bills for medical treatments. But this unit, known as Midwest Billing, created a culture in which it was assumed that personal troubles were a normal part of every worker’s life. Staff members cared for one another when they went through divorces or got sick. As one employee, Korinna, told her uncle after her mother’s unexpected death, “I need to go back to work because I need to work and I need to have my mind off everything that’s going on. But I also need to go back to work because I am surrounded by women who just open their arms to me.”

To be clear, it’s lovely that workmates get together and support each other, and these people sound like they’re deeply empathetic and should be applauded.

It is also so deeply not their problem it hurts.

Personal troubles are part of your life, and you should share them with your friends. However, it’s also emotional labor for your workforce to have to deal with everybody’s problems. It’s also deeply cruel to assume that everybody in the workplace is open to hearing everybody else’s problems - not everybody is capable (nor should they be expected to be) of dealing with other people’s stuff.

The key problem here is not the idea that you share your problems with friends - which is totally fine! - but that your work would create a culture where this is what you do. While it may seem like you’re just being a human being, it is a tremendous weight to put your problems on another person.

As an executive and a manager, your job is not to pass on your problems or anxieties unless they directly pertain to the execution of the job. If you are having a bad day, you can ask for help but you should be limited in how much of your stress you’re sharing. It’s one thing to say you’re having a shitty day - it’s another to take your problems out on someone else, or, indeed, share your own life struggles with the other person. I’ve seen managers use their underlings as trauma buckets, complaining about everything from their family to their relationships to their medical concerns, abusing their power dynamic in the process.

And no, as a CEO, you do not need more room to be vulnerable. While this doesn’t mean you’re an emotionless monster, you should be the most stable person in the room. When things suck, you are the one who is responsible for finding a way through it, and you should only share bad news if it’s relevant. If you’re a leader and reading this and thinking “but I’m so scared!” or “things are tough!” I must encourage you to grow the fuck up. If you are lucky enough to run a company, you are likely paid more and given more flexibility than anyone else in the company, and part of the reason is that you are meant to be strong.

The pandemic was the point where a decade of executive thought leadership bloviating should’ve finally culminated in something, except it proved how many leaders simply don’t want to lead. Leadership is not simply running the company, but empowering and protecting the people that work for you. This doesn’t mean declaring bankruptcy and then receiving a million-dollar bonus, nor does it mean taking government aid and then laying people off, nor does it mean taking forgivable government aid and then laying people off.  Hertz, a company currently best known for getting 165 people arrested for renting cars (and, of course, a company that filed for bankruptcy), shared a $16.2 million retention bonus with 340 of his most senior managers after laying off 11,000 people - and yet when CEO Paul Stone failed to improve the business, he was…given the title of President and Chief Operating Officer. And while the rental car business absolutely suffered during the pandemic, it’s quite obvious that the money was there to retain staff - the leadership simply decided it was more important to send that money upwards.

Modern leadership has become a form of feudalism, where managers and executives have no responsibility to anybody other than themselves and their cronies. Despite the endless flume of genius tweets and speaking opportunities, these leaders seem to utterly fail the moment that they have to consider those under them.

This isn’t new so much as it’s more pronounced as a result of the pandemic. The push to return to the office is yet another example of how leaders aren’t wholly concerned with actual company success, but protecting the insecurities and status quo of their particular cliques.

Many of the problems that I’ve discussed over the last two years can be traced back to leadership giving up on leading because part of real leadership is actually caring about the people below you. And if you believe that leadership is all about sending as much of the money upward as possible, then you’re never really going to understand why people won’t return to the office, or why people are quitting their jobs, or why so many people seem so angry at their bosses.

And I’d say a lot of this comes from how distant leadership has become from the work product that enriches them. A leader that doesn’t touch the process of the company that they lead isn’t a leader, they’re a puppet. A leader that doesn’t contribute meaningfully beyond attending meetings doesn’t lead - they steal.

And a leader that doesn’t care about and actively protect their people is worthless.

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