The Audacity of Emotion

After the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg did exactly what the social networking site encourages its 1.65 billion users to do: she shared her life experience online. In a lengthy Facebook post, she marks the end of sheloshim, a thirty-day Jewish tradition for the mourning of a spouse, writing, “When people say to me, 'You and your children will find happiness again,' my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. 'You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good' comforts me more because they know and speak the truth.”

Over the last year, Sandberg has publicly grappled with her feelings in several Facebook posts, with her colleagues, and even during her commencement speech at Berkeley. In April, Sandberg hosted an event for Facebook’s advertisers and their agencies. As she stood to welcome the attendees, Sandberg disclosed her struggle to find meaning during the dark days in front of a silent room of business executives. She expressed deep sorrow about her husband’s absence during a school event for her children earlier that day. Instead of putting on a good face to get through the dinner, she opened up, and spoke honestly about her pain.

This tragic experience prompted more than deep feeling; it also caused her to rethink aspects of her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. A modern women-in-the-workplace manifesto, Sandberg’s book nonetheless received a fair share of criticism for failing to address the forces of class, race, and single parenting that prevent some women from “leaning in.”

Detailed in another heartfelt Facebook post on Mother’s Day, Sandberg acknowledges how the death of her husband opened her eyes to a whole new perspective. She admitted that her book didn’t properly address the challenge of single parents. “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.” She continued by calling for improved policies on paid maternal leave and better support for single mothers.

Sandberg’s vulnerability, honesty, and willingness to share her loss with the public (and shareholders) challenges convention on what we expect from a Fortune 500 leader. While many responded favorably to her handling of the situation (the outpouring prompting Sandberg to begin penning a new book on resilience), this rare moment of emotional honesty also brought out the trolls. I was unsurprised by the detractors. After all, in the business world, success requires checking our feelings—if not our private lives entirely—at the door. We soon learn that mixing personal matters with work is unprofessional, or worse, a sign of weakness. Hold it together, hide your struggle, and absolutely do. not. cry. This mindset affects women the most, for whom showing emotion in the workplace is tantamount to career suicide.

Initially, Sandberg had her own reservations and even some of her Facebook colleagues were concerned by the possible outcomes of such a personal outpour. Would she be viewed as soft, distracted, unfit for the job? If she boldly soldiered on, there was professional risk there too. Is she that cold, heartless, an “ice queen”? Consider other recent examples. When Hillary Clinton choked up during a Benghazi hearing, she was accused of being weak and playing her “woman card” to turn down the heat. On a separate occasion, she was dubbed "Heartless Hillary" for expressing a plan to crack down on gun laws. It can seem like there is no way to win. But when one of the most powerful women in the corporate world reveals her humanity during a time of deep struggle, it makes an important social statement that challenges the future of business leadership.

Here’s the truth: women or men, we are human. A work environment that doesn’t take into account our humanity will be reflected in the health and morale of the company and affect its bottom line. If our business leaders are able to model their humanity gracefully, they create room for trust and connect with employees and customers alike.