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7 Reasons Why Leaders Shed Tears in Public

18/01/2016 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Two decades or so ago, there was an unsaid rule about showing emotions in public: don't do it. Crying, especially, was seen as a sign of weakness though there were a few exceptions to the rule.

Fast forward to 2016, and the world seems to have embraced emotions like never before. Tears are shed freely and sobs are no longer stifled. We have all see the previous speaker of US Congress John Boehner crying quite often, including when the Pope addressed the US Congress in September last year.

In the first week of January we saw President Barack Obama shedding tears during his gun-control speech while talking about first-graders killed by the bullet. Even leaders with a so-called "tough and macho image" aren't afraid of getting emotional now and then. This list includes leaders such as President Putin (such as during the 2013 Police Day celebrations) and Prime Minter Narendra Modi (at the Facebook headquarters as he talked about his mother).

[W]hen the tears roll out at the right moment, they make the leader look more authentic and sincere.

It's just not politicians who have turned emotional. Last week we saw Nikesh Arora of SoftBank getting chocked up during his acceptance speech after he received the Global Indian of the Year award at the Economic Times Awards for 2015, in Mumbai. The list goes one.

But why did these leaders cry?

Well, let's not forget they are all human beings. Like everyone else they too have emotions that sometimes leak out. What's more, crying is no longer seen as a sign of weakness. If anything, when the tears roll out at the right moment, they make the leader look more authentic and sincere.

Let me share with you my take on why leaders cry:

1. When something stirs the subconscious

When memories of past experiences hide in the subconscious mind and something brings back those images, a leader can become emotional. This is what seems to have happened to PM Modi at the Facebook office at Menlo Park. When Mark Zuckerberg asked Narendra Modi to tell him about his mother, it seemed to release his feelings of pain regarding his mother's sacrifices as he was growing up.

2. When something connects viscerally

This happens when an event makes you feel within your gut. It is instinctive and the feelings are difficult to control. President Obama's tears during the gun-control speech seem to be exactly for this reason. The tears were due to the feelings he felt within for those first graders shot by the gunman. I don't agree with recent Fox news contributor Andrea Tantaros when she said that the President's tears were not real. I was watching the telecast on CNN, Obama was very natural.

A leader cannot shed tears showing he is disturbed or shaken. And you have to know when to stop (i.e. quickly).

3. When feeling sad

In this case the emotions come to the fore due to the emotion of sadness or grief. At ET Awards Nikesh Arora seemed to be saddened by the fact that his parents could not make it to the event due to the ill health of his father who was in the hospital. As he recounted his father's sacrifices and his contribution to his life's journey, he was clearly emotional. He seemed sad that his father could not be there to cheer him on as he received prestigious Global Indian Award.

4. When feeling spiritually connected:

These are tears that emerge due to a spiritual connection a person has with someone he reveres. This could happen when you go to a place of worship which you may be longing to visit or you meet a religious leader with whom you feel spiritually connected. John Boehner's tears during the Pope's visit seem to be because he feels spiritually connected to him. He was also awestruck by being at such close quarters with the biggest spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. As he admitted, "When you grow up Catholic, you learn about the Pope as a distant figure, closer to God than any of us. Too have him here, at our Capitol, among our people, is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. A glimpse of grace."

5. When hit by nostalgia

These tears are due to a sentimental longing for a past period or a past association. For example, a CEO, known as a tough task master, could not control his tears on his farewell. The tears were out of nostalgia and the great time he had had in the company.

6. When happy

These are tears that fall due to joy. When President Putin won the Russian elections in 2012 and thanked his supporters at a rally, one could see tears brimming out of his eyes. They were tears of happiness for having come out victorious. I also sensed there was an element of gratitude.

7. When feeling a sense of gratitude

These tears surface when a leader feels grateful to someone or something. The example that comes to my mind is that of Narendra Modi, then Prime Minster elect, cried in front his party members in the central hall of Parliament in 2014. These tears were out of gratitude to his political party and to the citizens of this country for giving him an opportunity to lead the nation.

Clearly it's okay to cry, and it can make you look like a natural and authentic leader. But context is very important. A leader cannot shed tears showing he is disturbed or shaken. And you have to know when to stop (i.e. quickly) - you can't be a blubbering mess.

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