Monday, April 23, 2012

Why "Emotional Leaders" Are Underrated

Sharon Hodde Miller

Earlier this year I served at a women's ministry retreat in which our leadership team encountered a difficult situation. It tested our leader in a public way, but her response exceeded my expectations. She was a vision of grace under pressure, responding with patience, wisdom, and discernment. It was a true leadership moment that had a powerful impact on me.

Following the incident, I chatted with a fellow volunteer who also thought our leader was exemplary, but for different reasons: she admired the way she suppressed her emotions. Unlike "most women," who have trouble navigating their emotions in difficult situations, a predisposition that supposedly inhibits female leaders, our leader did no such thing. And my fellow volunteer thought our leader was stronger for it.

At the time I was still processing the events of that day so I simply nodded my head and listened. Since then, I have come to realize that I disagree-rather strongly, in fact.

For decades (and perhaps longer), there has existed a well-established myth that women are emotional creatures and men are not. Linked to this myth is the idea that a woman's emotions are an obstacle to all sorts of goods-objectivity, logic, and level-headed leadership.

I say this is a "myth" for two reasons. First, both men AND women are emotional creatures. We may express our emotions in different ways, but we are equally creatures of emotion. Second, the belief that emotion is a limitation is based on a very particular understanding of strength and success.

Some of the most prestigious psychologists of the last century appealed to the male standard of behavior as a kind of "norm" against which women were measured. This bias was partially rooted in the fact that most of the psychologists were themselves men, but it was also due to the fact that the workplace rewarded male characteristics.

As a result of this workplace dynamic, many women adapted by playing down their female attributes and becoming more like men. Part of this transformation involved becoming "less emotional."

However, recent news stories have noted that the workplace is changing. Far more men were laid off during the Recession than women, and economists predict that the new "knowledge economy" will favor women's skills and training over men's. Cold, logical leadership appears to be declining in favor of the collaborative, sympathetic leadership that is more traditionally associated with women.

Clearly, emotion is not antithetical to good leadership. Returning to my experience at the women's ministry retreat, I suspect that our leader responded so well because of her emotion. She was sensitive to the complexities and feelings of those involved, and it was her sensitivity that led her to act the way she did. Her emotion was not a hindrance, but an asset.

Of course, emotional leadership is not uniquely female. Jesus himself showed emotion throughout the course of his ministry on earth. He showed compassion on a crowd of followers (Matt. 9:36), he expressed great anger at the Temple moneychangers (Matt. 21:12), and he wept openly with those who were grieving (John 11:35). From his example, it would seem that emotion-when expressed in the right ways at the right times-it not necessarily female but instead Christian.

So I say we dispose with this myth that emotion and good leadership are mutually exclusive. And let's also dispose with the myth that women leaders are hindered by their emotions. Some women are limited by their emotions, just as some men are. But the answer is not to suppress our emotions when serving in leadership. The answer is to harness those emotions for the good work of God.

Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer and student pursuing her PhD at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In addition to her own blog, Sharon is also a regular contributor to Her.meneutics, Ungrind, and Cultivate Her.


  1. An excellent resource for managing emotions is found at and locate the principle of emotions. Going through this in a RoundTable mixed gender environment, I absolutely recognized what this author is writing about. Emotion is not limited to women. How you choose to express your emotion greatly affects your environment and those around you. Likewise, suppressing emotion also affects those around you because you are withholding who you are and the passion and giftings you bring. Handling emotions well is what brings the best out of you and others.

  2. Strongly agree. I've seen God use tears as his tool many times with both men and women. When I see a leader in tears I am drawn to their deep compassion. I also appreciate anger expressed correctly (as your example of Jesus in the temple). Certain things in this world better make us angry! Yes, emotions can be expressed in an ugly and unprofessional manner. However when expressed sincerely and in control, emotions reveal the heart of a leader.

  3. I strongly agree too. Emotions are a gift from God. We just need to use them rather than allow them to use us.