Business coaches, academics and society in general are often barking at leaders to be more authentic. In Management Today, numerous articles can be found outlining how chief executives can sharpen their soft skills and be more human.
When Braden Wallake hit upload on a selfie of his tear-stricken face to LinkedIn, he thought he was doing just that.
“This will be the most vulnerable thing I'll ever share,” the CEO of the marketing agency HyperSocial wrote in a post about how upset he was after laying off two staffers. He explained that the layoffs were his own fault, down to a business decision that he made in February and stuck to "for far too long."
He added: “Days like today, I wish I was a business owner that was only money-driven and didn't care about who he hurt along the way. But I'm not.
Instead of being met with celebration for his candour, many criticised the post for coming across as disingenuous and self-centred. It wasn’t long until LinkedIn was flooded with mock posts of the “crying CEO”.
Among the social media pile-on, recruitment manager and podcaster, David Rolls went viral for his spoof post claiming to use his team’s commission to go on holiday. “I can’t think of a lower moment than this,” he said, alongside a photo of his tearless scrunched-up face.
Surely, when CEOs are paid so generously, they should face difficult decisions head-on, instead of lamenting over them on social media? As one commentator put it: “Perhaps you had good intentions, but all I see is a company CEO with tears in his eyes and money in his pockets. Read the room.”
At the same time, leaders like Wallake are being compelled to be more vulnerable, so that their workforce can be too and share the real challenges they face - and layoffs are probably one of the toughest. Plus, he’s not the first leader to post a tearful photo with a soppy caption on the internet, so why did it garner such a negative reaction?
Probably because, as much as laying someone off is hard, it’s nowhere near as hard as being told you’re about to be jobless (especially while energy bills and inflation are eye-wateringly high).
“I think this CEO forgot that no-one really cares how bad he feels. He still has a job; he’s still getting paid,” Kev Chesters, co-founder and strategy partner at Harbour says. He adds that having made redundancies himself, he’s come to the conclusion that: “it is 100% easier on the management side of the table compared to their side.”
Ultimately, even authenticity has its boundaries. “It's OK to centre your experience if you are telling the tale,” communication strategist Genelle Aldred says, while warning that placing how you feel as the highest priority over the “the lived experience of losing your livelihood in a cost-of-living crisis doesn't show excellent leadership skills.” Really, it looks narcissistic. Not to mention it’s insensitive to your former staffers who will no-doubt see your indulgent self-pity post.
Instead, leaders should take cues from Pollen’s CTO Bradley Wright. In light of news that his employer went into administration, he took to LinkedIn to try to find new roles for his team members.
He posted: “Frankly you'd be lucky to have them! I've loved our time together, and while I could talk more about how this came about, my focus now is exclusively on helping my team. Please help me help them.”
Aldred agrees that “you can talk about how you feel whilst centring the people most affected”. She suggests instead of a crying selfie, a picture of his Wallake now former workers would have been more well-received, alongside a caption around how terrible he feels about letting them go.
Before hitting “send” on a vulnerable post centred around his experience, Wallake (and all crying CEOs) would do well to listen to Chesters' stern words of wisdom: “Forget how bad you feel or how upset you might be by the process. You are irrelevant in all this. Empathy is important, sympathy is useful – but I haven’t got any for him.”