Leading When You’re Hurting

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
― John Keats, Letters of John Keats

Sadness, discouragement, and disappointment aren’t topics we often discuss in leadership circles but we know from our own experience that these emotions are a part of life. More than likely either you or someone you know is going through a hard time right now.

This reality presents three choices:

  1. How you view these emotions.
  2. How you treat yourself.
  3. How you treat others who are struggling.

The first choice will greatly influence the other two.

Do you view internal struggles as a source of shame? A sign of weakness? A kind of failure? Societal, family and workplace norms can pressure you into believing you must stuff these feelings and wear a mask of invulnerability.

If this is your perception, then you will likely be hard on yourself in these situations. Possibly worsening the underlying feelings or shifting to anger and blame. More so you will tend to be intolerant of others who are hurting. Projecting your self-judgment and adding to their difficulty.

You can’t be emotionally intelligent in dealing with others if you are unwilling to be so with yourself.

Do you see these emotions as a reasonable, human response? Part of the normal flow of life? Like Keats, you can acknowledge a “world of pains and troubles” and still appreciate its role in your development as a person. You are not alone. You don’t have to pretend everything is OK. You can be honest about how you’re feeling. You can ask for help.

If this is your perception then you are more likely to seek healthy ways to work through times of difficulty. You can acknowledge what is happening and show yourself some compassion while you strive to move forward. As you learn to work with and through your pain, you increase your capacity to empathize with others who are suffering.

When people see that yes, you struggle too and how you handle it with grace and courage, you become a source of inspiration.

You can be both vulnerable and strong.

The good times are certainly more fun but it is in and through our difficulties that we grow. Leaders are not immune to the inner struggles that we all must learn to overcome.

It’s easy to imagine that people expect leaders to be superhuman but the truth is, they would rather work with someone who is simply human. They are looking for someone to show them the way through the hard times, not to set an impossible standard that makes them feel small, weak or less capable.

Positivity isn’t pretending things are great when they aren’t. It is believing that you can find something useful in every experience and that this too shall pass. This is all part of a much bigger story, not the world conspiring against you. Move forward with the knowledge that your emotions are not your identity and open up to what they can teach you. Light the way for others. That’s leadership.

Strength is made perfect in weakness.


  1. Scott, so true! You can be both vulnerable and strong. I really like your deep thoughts. Thank you for sharing.


    1. Hi, Dee – It takes great strength to be vulnerable. Too often seen as a weakness.


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