Theresa May — Should leaders expect people to care how they feel?

There’s been a lot of debate about whether we should feel sympathy for Theresa May or not.

As human beings we generally feel something when we see emotion in others. It might be a reflection of their emotion (they’re sad so we feel sad), or a reaction (they’re sad, we’re angry they’re sad), or suspicion (they seem sad, but are they really?) but we rarely feel neutral.

For years we’ve been talking about vulnerability and leadership. I’ve stood on stage and talked about leaders being more human, about employees bringing their whole selves to work, about the value of our emotions at a time when bots and AI are taking over the roles that don’t require human qualities (creativity, empathy, connection). Our emotions differentiate us from them.

But what can leaders expect when people see their public displays of emotion?

  1. It’s judgement day — When you show your emotions, expect others to have an emotional reaction too. As in Theresa May’s case, these are not necessarily going to be symathetic emotions. You will spark something, but you won’t always know what it is or how far back the reaction originates from.
  2. Beware making it all about you — Much of the anger we’ve seen towards May’s tears is based on her lack of equivalent public emotion when it came to the plight of others. For instance, she didn’t shed a tear over the Grenfell Tower fire victims. If you’re only publicly angry, upset or hurt when you’re the victim expect us to notice.
  3. We don’t trust it unless it’s consistent with who we think you are — Compare May to Jacinda Ardern. Ardern is regularly seen to express emotion. She’s excited, laughing, sympathetic, grieving. May, on the otherhand, acquired the nickname ‘Maybot’ precisely because she didn’t show emotion in public. If, as a leader, you want people to connect with you and to come with you as you drive change you need to embrace emotion every day, not just save it for the day you lose your job.
  4. People will try to use it against you — We’re still not comfortable as a society with public displays of emotion. Others will try to capitalise on your weakness if they can.
  5. You’ll win some admiration — At the same time, other people will feel connected with you, perhaps for the first time.

The bottom line about showing emotion is that you can’t guarantee the outcome. And, that’s really the point. If you’re trying to get a response by showing your feelings you’re playing a dangerous game. If you’ve actively worked to keep your emotions in check we’re going to be largely unforgiving when you crack. And if at your core you’re motivated by your own agenda, your own desire for power, recognition or approval, we’ll be able to tell.

But if you genuinely care about others, if you lead because you want the best for others and if you are connected with your emotions and can express them without any agenda other than being your true self, then we’ll probably follow you to the ends of the earth.

Blaire Palmer is a keynote speaker and executive coach for senior leaders who want to make an impact by being more themselves. For more information about her work go to

Agent provocateur, CEO, columnist, world authority on the future of leadership, keynote speaker, Former BBC Today Producer

Agent provocateur, CEO, columnist, world authority on the future of leadership, keynote speaker, Former BBC Today Producer