We make a mistake when we teach leadership. We often have the underlying assumption that humans behave like machines. Stable. Predictable. Rational.

We offer formulas, frameworks, and tools. In real life, people behave nothing like machines. They are emotional and unpredictable.

There are days that leading is effortless. We are overflowing with inspiration and positive energy. We are naturally magnetic and charismatic.

And there are days when we would prefer to stay under the covers and watch Netflix.

How do we lead then? When our hormones our out of sync, when kids have been sick, or we had a fight with our partner?

We have three options.

1. Leave our problems at the door and show up

This is the more traditional approach. Sometimes that is the best option, especially when you have short client-facing engagements.

It is often therapeutic as it helps us focus on something else for a while instead of our problem.

Research says that when you smile, you start feeling better. Lifting ourselves to show up for work can help us feel better.

While Brene Brown taught us that authenticity is essential, and vulnerability builds connection, too much vulnerability can also erode people’s trust in us as a leader, especially if they do not know us well.

Bruce Daisley shares a story about a friend of his who shared with her colleagues about her struggles with her sick father only to see her performance reviews going down. They “magically” went up when she stopped talking about it.

Not being able to share your whole self at work without negative consequences is unfair and sad. But, we cannot ignore the fact that people need to trust you can handle the job, and if they don’t, they will worry. The more you have earned their trust in your good days, the more bad days you can have without eroding that trust.

Throughout my career, I learned to focus on my clients when I am with them. From my sales career to coaching, I knew how to get into a positive zone before every meeting irrespective of what was going on in my life. That change of focus lifted me many times out of a funk.

This is not faking it. This is managing to lift yourself and show up.

2. Let people know that we are having a bad day.

When we are leading empaths, they will understand that something is wrong with us. And their mind will fill in their gaps, probably with something horrible or personal to them.

Sharing that you are in a low mood because something personal happened to you can help settle them as there is an alignment of what you say to what they perceive. You also model to them that it is OK to have bad days and lead through them.

Putting on a cheerful facade is exhausting and can lead to work dissatisfaction and lower performance.

By always appearing as “perfect” to our people, we do not give them permission to share their bad days with us either. We create an environment that people need to leave a part of themselves at the door to belong.

Also, sharing how you feel is a good option when “lifting yourself up” is not available to you at the moment.

I will always share when I am having a bad day with the closest colleagues, like my assistant. That way, she will not think my bad mood is because of something she did.

3. Take a break

You might decide to take time off to rest and deal with your mental health. You can choose not to go to a meeting or postpone it. That should be perfectly fine.

It is essential to have built-in buffers in your week so that you can be alone without dire consequences to your career.

You can have these buffers by blocking meeting-free days. By batching work and being ahead of your schedule. By training your team to be able to step in for you when needed. Bad days will come. Prepare for them.

John Lee Dumas from Entrepreneurs on Fire batch-produces his podcasts and has a 6-week buffer (he has made content for the next six weeks). This has allowed him to deal with all sorts of crises without his listeners ever experiencing a glitch.

I have found that without the built-in buffers in my schedule, it is easy for either the service to be interrupted or myself to get burnt out.

Not an option: Taking it out on our people

Often, people who feel pain or anger simply spill it over to the people around them.

Imagine if you are holding a cup full of a liquid and someone bumps you. If your cup has water, you will spill water. If your cup has coffee, you will spill coffee. It is easy to focus on the bump instead of what you carry. You would not be spilling coffee (anger or hurt) if you were not carrying it.

It is easy to get triggered and display toxic behaviors when we feel bad. Whether it is through blame, defensiveness, stonewalling, or sarcasm, our worst self can come out.  

I ask a question to myself when I am preparing to handle a difficult conversation or when I am triggered. Would I be happy for this conversation to be broadcast? Maybe be live-streamed on my LinkedIn feed? That helps me handle myself in a way that I will be proud of later.

Bad days are no excuses to be hurtful or unprofessional. We can hold ourselves to a higher standard. And when we slip, apologise.

Conclusion

We all have bad days. We can try to divert our focus to our work and lift our energy. We can be honest about it and lead through it with authenticity. Or we can take a break.

How do you lead when you are having a bad day?

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