Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett on Emotional Expression and Leadership

This week on Sister Leadership we are honoured to feature Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, who is a Champion for Women in Defence and “was named as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women as a Public Sector Leader by the Women’s Executive Network.” Rear-Admiral Bennett “has been able to successfully pursue two concurrent careers, one as a member of Canada’s Reserve Force and the other as a teacher and school administrator.  Over the past 38 years, she has risen through the ranks of the military to become Canada’s first female Rear-Admiral and senior ranking Reserve officer as Chief of Reserves and Cadets. “

It’s quite an opportunity for us to interview a woman who has been so successful in two career paths that one may not necessary connect. Following on from the last Women’s Executive Network breakfast, we wanted to pick up on the theme of emotional expression (the constructive expression of emotions), and felt the Rear-Admiral was in a unique position to share her experiences.

Unique, as to say that Rear-Admiral Bennett responses to our questions may not reflect other women’s experiences within the military. She suggests this is because “the combination of my two careers, one as a teacher and the other with the military have influenced my leadership style and I have maintained a humanistic approach in which I express emotions differently than many of my peers, not just because the military is a male dominated profession but because of my personality, experience (predominately non-combat work) and style of “servant leadership”.  There is also a culture and ethos in the military that we are gradually introduced to through our training and we grow to understand norms, standards and expectations.

It is a bit of a challenge to find your way when you first join and people often have preconceived notions of “military behaviour” or culture when it comes to emotions.  Because I have spent equal time between my two very different employment fields – one that is very nurturing and encourages emotion and the other that is considered more structured, hierarchical and requires “toughness”;  I have worked to develop a balanced approach and have found what works for me in the classroom and the military to earn respect and lead in a variety of settings. “

And so, we proceeded to asked Read-Admiral Bennett of her experiences with emotional expression. Her openness blew us away. Below you’ll find a transcript of our exchange.

1. Are there some emotions you feel more comfortable expressing than others? Why do you think that is, and how do you express what you are feeling?

 “I tend to be generally easy going and happy most of the time so I am more comfortable showing these feelings and sharing them with others.  I genuinely care about the people I work with and I show this through active listening and engagement, acts of kindness as well as emotional responses. I am comfortable expressing more positive emotions although I do consider my role and rank and the military setting that does call for a certain “style” that is generally more reserved and directed but I do not like to be the “tough guy” all of the time and would rather earn respect than demand it.  However, I am one of only a few women at my rank and level in the military so I am very aware of the “cultural norms” of the group and while I don’t stifle my emotions, I am conscious of my actions and emotions within the group and try not to be overly emotional or demonstrative.  Its like good manners and behaviour at social events,  there is an expected norm and a standard appropriate to each setting but there is a range from which we choose as required.

Theories of traditional military leadership tend to portray leaders as stoic and tough with few outward emotions and there are certainly highly stressful situations when you must maintain a certain bearing and sense of control but we are also human so emotions do come up differently in each of us.  With experience, I have learned that there is a time and place to show emotions and I try not to cry or dissolve in front of others when they need me to lead.  It is difficult for me to hide or mask some emotions like disappointment, anger, frustration, fear or sadness and I try to express these through words rather than actions.  I also rely on close peers, mentors or trusted allies as sounding boards for ideas, emotions and feelings.

It can be difficult for women to balance the two ends of the spectrum of emotions and the reputations that come with those.  Women working in male dominated professions or organizations in the past may have felt that had to act like a man to be successful and compete with their peers.  I have found that it is easier to be true to yourself and achieve a balance of emotions, understanding the professional culture and when and what is appropriate.  For example, breaking down into tears when you are supposed to be in charge does not instil confidence in your subordinates and you cannot focus your energy on what needs to be done.  If you feel this is going to be your reaction, excusing yourself for a moment or delegating to someone else allows you the chance to have your reaction but also be professional within a group.”

2. What does being happy look like to you? What about being frustrated or angry?

Being happy shows in my attitude, the way I approach work and the way I deal with people.  I’m very approachable and outgoing and over the course of my career with the military I have become known for my positive outlook and pleasant demeanour. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have bad days or get angry or frustrated, in fact, people know that I have a very long fuse and when I get to the end of it and become angry or frustrated, I get very serious and “mean business”.   I have also tried to maintain the perspective of “who’s problem is this” and “who’s bad day is this” because sometimes we are just in someone’s way and their anger or frustration doesn’t necessarily have to spill over and become ours.  I don’t normally fly off the handle and this allows for predictability and rationality.

When I’m frustrated or angry, my pattern of behaviour and body language changes and people can tell that something is not right.  In fact, I would say that I tend to show more emotion when frustrated or angry and this can be made worse when I’m overly tired or stressed.  Happy is something that grows and shows in all that I do and is very outward facing.  By contrast the opposite emotions normally cause me to withdrawal and react more quickly so I try to retreat to gather my feelings before reacting outwardly.  Disappointment and frustration can bring on tears, anger is usually demonstrated through a more direct and immediate response to the challenge.”

3. Have others ever misread your feelings or thoughts? Why do you think that happened, and how do you respond in such situations?

To go back to an earlier point, I’m generally pretty positive and happy and when I go to the other extreme, people don’t know what to do or how to take it.  This can be disarming for some and they may think I’m angry when I could just be frustrated, disappointed or upset (not with them but with a situation or an issue). When I’m tired or stressed I often get more emotional and it can be misinterpreted by others as being upset or angry.  In an environment where the majority of co workers are male, when they misread feelings they tend to go into “caretaker mode” and try to “make it better”.  Sometimes I just need to be angry or frustrated and work through the issue but because it isn’t what people usually see in me, they don’t know how to react and want to help.  In these cases, I find it is important for me to take some time to gather my thoughts and feelings rather than simply react.  There have also been times where I can’t control a surge of emotions and many have thought “it must be hormones”.  This is a tough one to overcome and I try to remain logical and not fall into that trap of blame or excuse, although there have been “days” . . .

Again, looking at leadership theory there are stereotypes regarding emotional intelligence and leadership and some who think that gender based characteristics relate directly to effectiveness of leaders and that “male characteristics” tend to favour leader success and effectiveness, particularly in high stress occupations or situations. Some effective leadership attributes occur naturally in women including emotional intelligence, collaboration, relationship and team building but “warrior traits” (courage, toughness, logic, highly focused, unemotional) are seen as essential to competitive business and success in operations and combat. I don’t believe that leadership is gender based and that emotions and feelings have a role to play for all leaders.

I have been able to stay true to my personal leadership style and personality throughout my military career and though expressing my feelings and thoughts has sometimes been misread as “too emotional” or “atypical”, for the military setting  I have garnered respect from my peers, subordinates and superiors and have developed the self confidence and self awareness to know what works best for me and the environment in which I am serving.  I am also confident enough to speak up and explain my reaction, my feelings or my emotions. In my opinion, and based on my personal experience I think that being human and showing a range of emotions is not being “weak” but strong.”


Sister Leadership would like to express our deepest thanks and gratitude to Rear-Admiral Bennett for being open to our questions, and exploring the concept of emotional expression in leadership. We were entirely thrilled when such gave us such fascinating and open responses – and we hope her insights are in turn helpful to you in your experiences, whether you are balancing between two types of careers, or several ‘worlds’ in general. Many thanks again, Rear-Admiral. It has been our honour.

awareness (4)And now, we’re going to dig into the Sister Leadership tool box to give you an exercise connected to emotional expression, which is connected to perception. Often our emotional responses to a situation are triggered by our perception of the message. Learn how we filter the world of information around us, and how that filtering can impact what we do and do not see in our surroundings. Click here to be taken to the awareness exercise! Give it a read and see if this scenario resonates with yourself. We’d love to hear from you, whether you have reflections on Rear-Admiral Bennett’s thoughts, or a personal insight. Get in touch!

Till next week,


Camille Boivin is founder of Sister Leadership, certified in EQi 2.0 and EQ360, a master practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), has been coaching high-level women and men for over six years, and is now opening her expertise to those emerging in business. Camille pulls her blog topics from her unique coaching approach that combines her training as a EQi 2.0 and EQ360 certified facilitator with the dig-deeper tools of NLP.

Get in touch here if you’d like to talk with Cam about group or one-on-one coaching, and EQ assessments. With the miracle of Skype and telephones – distance is no issue!


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