Sadness & Leadership
By Bill Auxier, Ph.D.
Dave and I shared the same dock in the marina where we kept our sailboats during the summer on Lake St. Clair. We came to know each other out of our love for sailing and soon forged a lifelong friendship. Early on in our friendship, Dave shared with me that he wanted to make a major career shift. I mentored Dave through that career shift. Fast forward 25 years; Dave’s shift resulted in a very successful career that had a major positive impact on his life. A few years ago, an unexpected call from him was a pleasant surprise, until he told me why he was calling. He had lung cancer. It was fatal. He only had a short time to live. We were able to get together and reminisce before cancer won. He died too young from a disease that didn’t make sense. Dave died from lung cancer; the irony being that he had never smoked in his life. I was very sad at his passing. I felt the grief of not having visited each other more often over the years. I had sadness for the loss his wife and children were experiencing and feeling.
When we experience a loss or even a potential loss, we feel the emotion of sadness. I don’t know about you, but I do not like feeling sad. I do not like the feeling of grief. I view sadness and grief as negative emotions. That being said, sadness does have a purpose; it motivates us to change. Numerous studies have been conducted examining sadness and grief and research has shown how different types of sadness can motivate different types of behavioral change. Relationship loss stimulates change in social activity. Failure stimulates more work-type changes.
Sadness has other benefits too. Sadness can make you more rational, sadness can reduce gullibility and sadness can reduce forgetfulness. Sadness can make you more sensitive to social norms, it can increase politeness and increase fairness. Sadness can also provide a signal to others that you need help. The emotion of sadness can provide you with benefits.
While we tend to view sadness and grief as negative emotions, we tend to view happiness as a positive emotion, one of the reasons that the pursuit of happiness so prevalent in our society today. But happiness can lead to negative outcomes like superficial thinking, an exaggerated self-confidence and greater risk taking. The “positive” emotion of happiness has a negative side.
Instead of thinking of emotions as either positive emotions or negative emotions, think about the positive effects and the negative effects of each emotion. Leaders that excel at recognizing their own emotions as well as the emotions of others are better able to effectively lead others. Leaders with greater emotional intelligence are better at influencing others and realize greater career success. Tapping into your own emotions helps you become more attentive with greater understanding to what others are feeling. Your ability as a leader to do this will result in greater success for everyone.
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