Professional Development Leadership

Leading in Hard Times: On the Verge of Tears

By Phil Harkins on February, 4 2021
climbing up a snowy mountain

A few days ago, a client named Rory told me he “lost it” when he was asked a simple question during an online meeting. He became tearful, exploded, and abruptly signed off the video conference. He had never done that before, he confessed, and asked my advice. His CEO also called me, worried that Rory might actually quit because he had broken down in front of his team. She asked me to check in with Rory’s colleagues, as she was also concerned about the emotional toll on all of them.

Here’s what I heard from Rory’s team:
  • “Rory made a brave move. I hope he is okay.”
  • “I never saw Rory vulnerable before....he’s always so buttoned-up. It could have happened to any one of us.”
  •  “Rory was real. His vulnerability allowed me to cry on my way home. There’s a lot of sadness out there.”
  • “I felt badly, because I was the one who asked the question. On any other day, it might not have mattered. We’re all supersensitive right now.”
  • “I will probably be the next one to go.”

I thought a lot about these comments and then called Rory.

He told me he did feel slightly better after his outburst, but his main reaction was that he was “humiliated.” He didn’t know how he could attend the next team meeting. So I told him what I’d heard from his colleagues. I said: “Your vulnerability gave the team permission to be honest about what they’re feeling themselves.” I told him this ultimately made his team feel better and closer. Rory was surprised, and still anxious about the next meeting, but it helped him to know that his colleagues were more concerned about what he was feeling, and not as much about what he’d said in the heat of the moment, or his sudden signing off.

I’ve been observing that many leaders I interact with during this Covid-19 crisis are on the edge—trying to control their deep emotions while maintaining the need for courage. This constant balancing act takes its toll. It basically wears people down. Some report sleeping less, having overflows of emotion, and wondering how to stay centered.


"In hard times, leaders often believe they must be brave and rock solid, repressing and suppressing their own feelings. But what people most want from each other in a crisis is openness and sharing."


At the end of our discussion, Rory said: “I am going to try to be more like Winston Churchill—tougher.”

Most of us probably have an impression of Churchill as a pillar of stoic strength, with a leadership style best characterized as “Never, never, never give up.” But Winston Churchill cried in public more than 50 times. A newspaper headline during WWII even called him “The Crybaby Prime Minister Winston Churchill.” Nevertheless, Churchill’s greatness was in no way diminished by showing his emotions and letting the tears flow.

Thinking back to recent conversations with so many, particularly those now working from home and feeling the loss of closeness with their teammates, it’s clear that the unfamiliar pressures and long days without companionship have increased stress and anxiety. Experts seem to agree that we will be working differently in the future, and this “new normal” is presenting its own challenges. People report that they are watching very carefully how others appear in video conferences—even more than they did when they were physically together in meetings. One hospital leader said “I’m fine with working virtually with the team. However, I totally miss the reassurance and personal interactions. It’s hard to get a read on people on video.”


This prompted me to go all the way back to grad school notes from a psychology course, where I underlined something I’d thought was important: “Extreme anxiety without release can lead to emotional numbing.” Are we, in fact, all getting numb in just this short period of time? As we get used to seeing each other only on video conferencing, one thing I observe that’s common in the virtual meeting format is that there’s usually not much emotion. Video conferences seem to be about 95% facts and information, without much focus on personal interaction—the “message behind the message” gets lost. I came across another note: “Leaders under pressure dealing with fear of the unknown need to take care of themselves first.”

What do leaders—and perhaps all of us—need to do to stay strong and centered? Research on building resilience under stress leads to clearer thinking and better decisions.

Here are six best ways that I recommend to fortify yourself, stay strong, and be at the top of your game:

1. Sleep better
2. Double your exercise
3. Eat properly
4. Practice mindfulness
5. Release anxiety, and allow tears to flow when th
e need arises
6. Laugh and find happiness in small moments

Here’s the reasoning behind these steps:

1. Sleep—the power of rest. Sleep is when your body and brain regenerate for the next day, and it’s more crucial than most of us want to admit for our physical and mental health. Those of us who think we can “get by just fine” on less than seven hours of sleep each night are fooling ourselves. The long-term sleep deficits we build up will eventually hurt our ability to focus, deplete our emotional reserves, and most critically in a pandemic, weaken our immune systems.

In stressful times, many of us have trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep, ending up wide awake and worried. The mind races. Anxiety increases. But there are lots of methods that can help. If you or anyone on your team are having difficulty going to sleep, settling down, or are finding yourselves waking up desperate to get back to sleep, here are a few self-hypnosis techniques to try (and you don’t have to be a therapist to learn to do this). If you want to know more about this, please reach out directly.

2. Exercise. Along with sleep, exercise is one of the most effective things you can do to manage stress. The rule under stress is to double whatever you were already doing for exercise if you can, or to start exercising, in some way, if you were not doing it before. Don’t spend all of the “stay at home” time in front of the computer or on the phone--- keep active. It doesn’t have to be rigorous. Consider yoga, Pilates, biking, running, walking, gardening, or stretching. There are many online options for exercise classes and routines you can do from your home, without equipment, if you can’t get outside. But getting out into fresh air for even thirty minutes a day will also help invigorate you and give you a break from the temptation to work nonstop. Carve out a specific time each day for some exercise-- make a routine-- and stick to it.

3. Eating right. In stressful times, experts recommend eating a more robust lunch and a light, early dinner. They suggest limiting sugar, reducing alcohol, and having lots of lean protein and fresh vegetables. Thomas Edison followed a strict regimen of only six ounces of solid food every day and drinking lots of milk. You don’t need to go to that extreme, but Edison believed it put him in a state where he was never totally full but had just the right amount of energy to create generative thinking with minimal stress.

Here are some recommendations for healthy eating in stressful times:

4. Meditation/mindfulness. In just a few minutes a day, a mindfulness or mediation practice can provide a way to relax and release the stress and worry of what’s around us. If you don’t believe in mindfulness or meditation, you can substitute prayer, or even catnapping. John F. Kennedy was known to stop and take a less than ten-minute nap three times each day. You might try this. Naps that are longer than ten minutes often don’t work as well. To understand more about mindfulness exercises, the Mayo Clinic will give you what you need to know: Mindfulness Exercises

5. Crying. Everyone feels the need for the physical and emotional release of a good cry on occasion. It’s okay for leaders to let go of sadness and express their fears about an uncontrollable situation. Here is some information that you might find useful: The Health Benefits of Tears

Even in Japan, people are beginning to honor crying -- contradicting a stereotype of their culture: Crying Classes

6. Laughing. Laughing is a magical release that’s contagious in a very positive way. At the height of the COVID pandemic, it may seem like a serious face is the right look. Acting cheery doesn’t always feel right, but it’s important to find times when laughing is okay. I am advising leaders to find five moments a day to laugh appropriately. It could be sharing a funny moment from a movie, or a silly incident at home. In addition to its emotional boost, research shows that the health benefits of laughing are far-ranging: it enhances the intake of oxygen-rich air to the heart, stimulates circulation, can relieve pain, and even strengthens our immune system. More about this here: Stress Relief with Laughter and Therapeutic Laughter

In India, people who are feeling stressed are invited to come to public places where they can laugh together. There are a number of YouTube videos showing the Laughing Clubs of India.


What we know is that at some point, we will all go back to work. We will have a new economy. We will get our lives back, although they will probably be somewhat different from before. It may feel like the economic time a previous generation lived through after World War II, says Stephen Roach on Bloomberg. He calls it “the long shadow”: Bloomberg Video.

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, acclaimed as one of the top ten most important books of all time, is a great book to read right now. Also, I’ve attached a video about Nando Parrado, the hero who rescued his rugby teammates in the Andes fifty years ago against incredible odds. It will leave you feeling stronger.


My main message is that it’s okay for leaders to be vulnerable and to express what they are feeling, particularly under stress. Others will appreciate your honesty and admire your courage in sharing your emotions. As a leader you also have permission to ask others how they are feeling. It will reduce stress for you and for them.

Finding the resolve and strength to lead means managing your stress, not suppressing it. As leaders we must first take care of ourselves, because we can’t lead if we don’t stay healthy. That requires constant vigilance to exercise, eating well, staying rested, being mindful, laughing, and yes, even crying.
Please reach out if you need any supportive information on anything in this essay.


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