The One Lie Deceptive Leaders Tell

I have been to two funerals in the last month. Sarah, my sister-in-law, passed away at 40, leaving my brother and his two kids to keep going without her. And I just returned from Los Angeles from my grandfather’s funeral. I wrote eulogies for both of them. It has been a life-impacting month. And surprisingly, it has taught me a bit more about leadership.  

Many people have shared kind words and volunteered to help in remarkable ways. Kindness always finds a way to shine through when it’s most needed.

But every so often during tough times, someone asks a question or makes a statement that stings. It’s often accidental, but it still hits a nerve. That’s because it touches a deeply held belief that is closer to the surface than usual.

This happened last week when a former colleague of mine jokingly said, “Dude, don’t be so serious, you got to relax.” Relax? I have been soaked by the fragility of life. No, I will not relax. I will never relax. My time is limited, and so is yours.

This comment made me recall how my own colleagues and managers behaved during times of stress. I spent some time thinking about what they did and said when things went sideways. I thought about this because as the CEO of Aha!, I know that my behavior sets the tone for a rapidly growing company.

I finally realized why I have a visceral reaction to being told to relax. It took a few days, but I now understand.

The greatest leaders I have worked with all immersed themselves in the moment when they were needed most. By contrast, the least capable and most fragile managers created distance. And far too many of those poor leaders reached for a cliche when they should have been real.

Telling someone to relax when something serious has gone wrong is deceptive and damaging. Here’s why:

Devalues them
During times of stress, the most valuable thing you can offer as a leader is understanding. People do not expect you to solve their problems — but they do hope that you will acknowledge what is going on. Saying “Relax” to an upset person undermines their feelings in a hurtful way.

Hurts you
As a leader, you will encounter challenging moments with your team — it’s unavoidable. In these situations, the worst thing you can do is be dismissive and project a flair of complete control. You both know that you cannot change what’s happened or make it go away. Pretending like you can damages your own credibility.

Ignores the reality of time
Each life is a miracle, and we are blessed with the productive time we have. We spend more time at work than we do with our families — so our actions at work matter deeply. The most profound leaders foster trust by acknowledging when things are hard. They stay close to their teams. Saying “Relax” minimizes the importance of action and life.

In most situations, telling someone to relax is not just annoying, it’s deceptive and hurtful. It’s not going to help resolve their anxiety, but it will make them feel embarrassed for feeling it.

When bad things happen or big problems arise, leaders must fully engage. There is no magic button that makes the pain go away or erases awful mistakes. But there are leaders who quietly listen and stay close to those they care about. This is the type of leader I trust and aspire to become.

How do you feel when you hear “just relax”?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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