Know Thyself: The Dark Emotions of Leadership

The brain is always doing something. Sometimes, our brain is helping us by solving problems, developing a strategy or method, or by allowing creativity to flow through us. Elsewhere, our brain is plotting and predicting our personal catastrophes, failures and embarrassments. These conjured up disasters aren’t always realistic or likely, but for some reason our brain latches onto these negative thoughts and ideas. The Roller Coaster Years by Giannetti and Sagarese illustrates we only have control over 2 percent of the things we worry about.

The other 98 percent of those negative thoughts either: never happen, turn out better than we expected, are completely outside of our control, or are insignificant and petty compared to our bigger priorities in life. How is it possible that we exhaust so much of our brain-power on this irrational worrying? The answer is “survival.”
Long ago, before the human brain developed into the data-processing, email­-prioritizing tool it has become, it was dedicated to understanding the environment around us and detecting threats for our survival. In a nutshell, our entire experience, history and lessons-learned can trigger a fight, flight or freeze response in our brain and body, designed for self-protection against a threatening environment. Imagine taking a walk in your backyard only to be greeted by an unexpected wild animal. You will likely have a self-protective reaction: yell to scare it off (proving you are bigger), run away (giving over to the animal’s power) or standing paralyzed (a momentary shutting down). In this hypothetical, it’s great that we don’t have to think about these self-protective reactions. However, in everyday instances, these survival reactions are getting triggered, going unnoticed and unchecked.
The personal and professional impact of our unconscious reactions to the world around us are profound. The tone of our voice, the looks we shoot toward others, and the language that comes from a place of emotional reaction can make or break a relationship over time. Today, we have ever-increasing evidence that emotional reactivity, unchecked, can have very negative implications on our business and our teams. Whether it be lashing out, avoiding conflict or total indecisiveness, we know these are fear-driven reactions to feeling threatened by our environment. Rather than a wild animal in the backyard, it is often a fear of failure, fear of looking stupid in front of colleagues or clients, fear of what others will think of us, and so on.
Although these fears have their place in our lives, we struggle to find harmony and balance in them. For example, a fear of failure can be a healthy experience to prepare adequately and do a good job. But, if we are preparing adequately, doing a good job and the fear of failure is compromising our ability to show up effectively, we know fear is not in service to us. It is an emotional reaction that needs to be checked and negotiated. How we negotiate these moments of fear or reactivity depend on our self-awareness, which comes from how much time we spend in self-reflection. Having worked directly with people’s emotions for over a decade, I know for certain that time in self-reflection is not something we generally book in our calendar these days. Yet, it is one of the most important blocks of time to ensure our own success and effectiveness.
Only in our time of self-reflection can we sort out what is real versus what is realistic about our fears of failure and appearances. In those moments when our fear has gotten the better of us, in quiet self-reflection, we might uncover it was unexpected self-doubt. We were preparing and delivering well enough the whole time, but something like doubt can compromise our emotional state along the way. What a wonderful thing to discover. Even if it makes no rational sense that we have self-doubt over a project, it’s there for us to deal with. Sometimes, when things like self­-doubt don’t make rational sense (i.e., “I’ve done it a thousand times, why am I doubting myself?”) but we are experiencing them anyway, we suppress and push those thoughts and feelings down and pretend they aren’t there. Unfortunately, as irrational as some of these thoughts are, they have power over our demeanor when we push them down and pretend we are “fine.”
Since we can’t be totally absent of fear and negative emotions, nor can we just push them down, our power comes from our ability to deal with them in real time. This is good self-awareness and self-management. It is our responsibility to negotiate our thoughts and feelings, making sure what we give to the outside world is authentic and consistent with our intentions and values, rather than unconscious reactions.
When we are reacting emotionally, and we don’t realize it, we are not being ourselves. We are just being self-protective creatures of survival. Although survival has its place, it is not often leadership. Leadership is congruence between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Leadership is about authentic service and authentic connection. But frequently, we are feeling one thing, thinking another and acting a third. It is hard for the people who rely on us to follow and trust us when we are this discombobulated. It is our personal responsibility to become intentional and aligned emotionally.
Our intentions as leaders are almost always good. We seek to create the best experience and value possible for our clients, employees and stakeholders nearly all the time. It is our behaviors that end up being inconsistent. For example, most of us wish to live a healthy life but forget to eat a wholesome diet and budget time for physical exercise. Our intentions are good, yet the misalignment of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors get in the way. Working to our disadvantage, many of our unconscious thoughts drive our feelings inside, which result in a predictable, but unconscious, behavior. Meaning, if my head is not clear because I’m thinking about someone who upset me yesterday… I will remain angry today and act-out in front of others who had nothing to do with the situation. Additionally, if I believe I am incapable of getting healthier, I will get frustrated and will make choices that align with my frustration rather than my hopes of becoming healthier.
The people we love to follow are those who inspire us to be better. The people who inspire us to be better spend introspective time getting themselves aligned between their intentions and actions. They regularly scan their mental and emotional landscape for fallacies and reactions that don’t serve them. For a moment, think of those individuals in your life who’ve brought you inner peace because of their presence. They are the leaders who offer sincere guidance and quality perspective that will make you stop and say, “I hadn’t thought of it that way before.” A surprising realization for many people is that it is now their turn to be this inspiring leader. The torch has been passed on to them, but with no formal declaration and no fanfare. They’ve simply become a leader, responsible for the professionals who look up to them and who need their guidance.
A conscious choice many of us need to make is to decide what kind of leader we will become. Independent of our obligations to “keep the ship afloat” and meet quarterly profit goals, what kind of person will we choose to be to the people who follow us? Few to none consciously choose to be absent, indecisive or emotionally-reactive leaders. Instead, they simply didn’t make a choice at all. The end-game of all this time spent on yourself, understanding your thoughts and feelings in the best of worst of times, comes down to this very idea of leadership. You get to become the person who once guided you. You get to be the leader who makes others say, “I hadn’t thought of it that way before.” You get to become a people-building leader of whole lives, advancing the perspectives and careers of those around you.
The “what’s in it for me?” of this kind of leadership is soulful satisfaction and fulfillment. Working with several emotionally regretful millionaires, I’ve learned that all the money you could make can’t replace a few key things in life on earth. The first is family. The second is living purposefully. The third is meaningful relationships. The fourth is the joy of leaving a legacy of goodwill that lives beyond you. Imagine these as a workplace culture. Imagine this as your team’s natural state. Purpose, meaning and a legacy of goodwill can be a part of our everyday lives as leaders. But, it does require personal accountability to being introspective, centered and emotionally available to ourselves and others. Without truly knowing ourselves and shedding our reactive habits, we’ll miss the chance to know the leader we could have become. It is my challenge to you to find that inner work, do that inner work, and when you experience that centered place of perspective: pass it along.

Daniel Stover, M.A.

[email protected]

Founder & CEO of Ensight Partners

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