The Leader and Emotion: Sorrow

From joy to sorrow, all leaders experience a broad range of emotions. Often they are mixed together as they were for David in Psalm 31. In the first verses he expresses his joy in God’s love but then he quickly reveals his sorrow.

 9 Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief. 10 My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak. 11 Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors and an object of dread to my closest friends— those who see me on the street flee from me. 12 I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery. 13 For I hear many whispering, “Terror on every side!” They conspire against me and plot to take my life. 14 But I trust in you, LORD; I say, “You are my God.” 15 My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me. 16 Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love. (Psalm 31:9-16)

Servant leaders learn from David how to lead with sorrow!

Sorrow should be recognized. The emotion of sadness or sorrow is one which we often view as a negative emotion. So many leaders try to ignore their sorrow and find it difficult to say, “I feel sad.” Instead they may choose to speak a “positive confession” to convince themselves and others that they are happy.

But David made no attempt to ignore his emotion: “My eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.” He recognizes exactly where he is emotionally. He recognizes that this emotion impacts his body, specifically his eyes, soul, body and bones. He is not deciding if his sorrow is right or wrong, he simply acknowledges what he is feeling in the moment.

Servant leaders learn to recognize their sorrow. They refuse to pretend that they are not sad. They pay attention to what is happening to their physical body in response to this emotion.  

Sorrow should be revealed. David doesn’t try to keep his sorrow hidden. He summarizes his situation, “I am in distress.” He continues his conversation with God, revealing deep emotion.

Even when sorrow is recognized, many leaders try to keep it hidden. For some, this comes from a desire to be seen as a ‘strong’ or ‘positive’ leader. They believe the lie that real leaders are always positive and victorious. Perhaps their culture does not allow “real men” to be sad or to shed tears.

But servant leaders learn that sadness is a part of being a real human. They find appropriate ways to express their sorrow. They might verbally admit that they are filled with sorrow in a certain situation. Or, as David did here, they might write a psalm of lament to God to reveal their feelings. Servant leaders do not need to apologize when a tear rolls down their cheek. They serve others by revealing their humanity.

Sorrow should be restrained. David recognized and revealed his sorrow but then he turns back to God. “But I trust in you, LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’” He asks God to help him change the situation with his enemies.

David recognizes that he is still a leader in the midst of his sorrow and that his sorrow will not last forever. He wrote in the previous chapter, …weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). So, he was able to lead in the midst of sorrow, but would not allow sorrow to control his leadership.

Servant leaders learn to restrain their sorrow. They cry out to God with their pain and then choose to focus on Him instead of their sorrow.  They lead on in the midst of sorrow.

Until next time, yours on the journey,

Jon Byler


For further reflection and discussion:

  • What does my culture teach me about expressing sorrow or sadness? How have I allowed that to influence my leadership?
  • How can I balance the need to be a positive and optimistic leader with the need to be honest with my emotions?
  • Read Genesis 33:4; 43:30; Ezra 3:12; 10:1; Nehemiah 1:4; Jeremiah 9:1; Luke 22:62; John 11:35; Acts 20:37; and Revelation 5:4. What do these passages teach me about leadership and tears?
  • In what ways can I appropriately express my emotion of sorrow? Are there ways of expressing this emotion which would not be appropriate?
  • How do I need to restrain my sorrow so that it does not control my leadership?


Copyright, Global Disciples 2018.