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When Washington Wept

Can leaders show negative emotions?

For today’s leaders, showing “weakness” is a totally undesirable behavior.

But that wasn’t always the case. Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, soldiers of the Continental Army learned that Congress had no money to pay them for their service. Some soldiers advocated using violence to get what they were owed. Recognizing the danger of an unpaid army, General George Washington attempted—but failed—to persuade Congress to find money to pay the soldiers. A few months later, at a dinner in honor of Washington’s retirement as commander-in-chief, the soldiers’ anger and resentment at both Congress and Washington filled the room.

Wishing to cut through the anger, Washington rose and made a toast that included wishing the officers present “. . . that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former . . . have been glorious and honorable” (Fleming, 2009, 13). As the men raised their glasses, tears began to stream down Washington’s cheeks. Seeing Washington’s tears dissipated the anger in the room. The officers recognized Washington’s regret that he had failed not only to get them their money, but also for Congress to show appreciation for their efforts on behalf of the country.

Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Four months later, when Washington stood before Congress announcing his retirement as commander-in-chief, tears again streamed down his face. Seeing Washington’s emotional reaction to his farewell, one Congressman later wrote, “all wept” (Fleming, 2009, 14).

Today, it seems almost inconceivable that a leader would so openly show regret or disappointment in an outcome through tears. And the idea of a modern president moving members of Congress to tears—in a positive way—is totally inconceivable.

In modern organizations, expressing anger about a failed effort seems to be widely acceptable. Listing the reasons why the effort didn’t work or blaming the people who prevented the leader from succeeding are other common reactions to disappointing news. But simply expressing regret, taking responsibility for the failure, and showing an emotion such as sadness isn’t a common management practice today.

Would showing sadness about an outcome—as Washington did—work in a modern organization? Could a speaker before Congress use tears to persuade colleagues about depth of his or her emotion about an issue? Could a CEO change the climate in a board meeting by letting an emotion such as sadness show? And what would be the reaction if it were a woman, rather than a man, who wept about an undesirable outcome?

To my knowledge, no modern leadership book or management guru recommends using emotions such as tears to make a point. Yet showing one’s “humanness” is an intriguing idea that might fit with the modern theory of authentic leadership (George, 2003). Authentic leadership is based on the idea that successful leaders have clear knowledge of their personal qualities and abilities and use them in their interactions with followers.

Another explanation for Washington’s successful use of tears is, of course, Great Man theory (Jago, 1982). Perhaps Washington simply had a larger-than-life personality and could successfully use methods of communicating that other leaders could not.

Or, finally, George Washington’s tears could simply represent the idea in Gestalt therapy that emotions exist to help us understand and respond appropriately to the world we live in (Smither, 2008).

Whatever the case, it seems unlikely that modern leaders will allow followers to see their tears. The image of the strong, resolute, always-in-control leader is a much safer way to go than projecting a personal emotion such as sadness that leads to tears—even if George Washington wasn’t afraid to do so.

References

Fleming, T. (Spring 2008). George Washington’s tears. MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, 20, 8-14.

George, B. (2003). Authentic leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jago, A. G. (1982). Leadership: Perspectives in theories and research. Management Science, 28, 315-336.

Smither, R. (2008). Existential and humanistic psychotherapy. In D. C. S. Richard, & S. K. Huprich (Eds.), Clinical psychology: Assessment, treatment, and research. NY: Academic/Elsevier.

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