Healthy Leaders Have Needs Also

As a leader, have you ever had times when you felt emotionally spent or empty? That the well had run dry?

It is not unusual for a leader to reach a point where they feel like they have used all of their emotional energy and have nothing left to give. Yet, relating to followers and meeting their emotional needs in the work setting is a basic function of an effective leader. The people that we lead need affirmation, encouragement, understanding, challenge, and other such emotional support in order to face their challenges and perform at a high level.

A typical leader has a large store of emotional energy and they use it liberally. Often a leader uses from their emotional tank without getting the tank refilled. The result is a feeling of emptiness, of being spent out.

The statement, “it’s lonely at the top” is generally true. Often leadership can be lonely. Leaders are especially susceptible to emptying their emotional tank, despite its large capacity, for reasons such as the following:

  • Leaders are servants. They have a keen awareness of emotional needs in the people that they lead and they seek to fill those needs. They want their people to be healthy and productive.
  • Leaders do have a large store of emotional energy and they can dispense it liberally without realizing that they are running a deficit.
  • The people around leaders often perceive their leader as being strong, capable, and not having any needs. Leaders tend to “have it all together.” So, while leaders watch for opportunities to provide emotional support to others, those others do not see any need to reciprocate.
  • Leaders sometimes view themselves as a bit of a superhero, able to take on anything and not show any needs.

Every person has emotional needs. There are those people that are emotionally unhealthy and overly needy, but we are not talking here about them. Leaders tend to be very emotionally healthy. But even the healthiest person needs to take in some emotional fuel occasionally. Some people do not want to recognize that they have any emotional needs because they have been taught that needs are weaknesses. But this is not true; emotional needs are a part of human nature. We were created for relationship and a part of being in relationship is both having and filling emotional needs.

Sometimes we need to learn how to recognize and voice our emotional needs. The idea of having needs is so foreign that we may have trained ourselves (or been trained) to not recognize that they exist. So a first step might be to learn what emotional needs are and how they manifest themselves. An emotional need can be a simple hunger for affirmation after having done something difficult. It can be a desire for empathy (not sympathy, by the way) after suffering a loss. It can be a need for encouragement or challenge when facing a difficult task or decision. It can be a need for understanding or acknowledgement when facing tough circunstances.

How does a leader go about getting his or her emotional needs met? They need to develop a group of people where they have a safe relationship. They need to be able to voice their need and have others who care about them step in to meet this need. (We can’t wait and hope that others perceive these needs.) Within an organization this might be a few trusted colleagues. Sometimes people develop a sort of personal board of advisors who serve in such a role. Often the most effective means is to join a peer group of similar leaders who can develop relationships and provide connection and support to each other.

A leader can be thought of as a high-performance jet. Our emotional energy is the jet fuel that makes us effective. But if we spend all of our fuel in helping our people and then run dry ourselves, we are in danger of crashing and burning, or at least being less effective. We need to get our emotional tank topped off once in a while so that we can run at maximum efficiency.

Do you recognize your emotional needs? Do you have a means of getting your emotional tank refueled?

1 Comment
  • by Susan Posted October 27, 2017 8:31 pm

    Important message for the leader’s health and the health of his or her organization.

    Thanks Ken!

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