In the course of our advisory and coaching work with leaders, we often work through frustrating, infuriating and stressful situations that confound the most enthusiastic and committed executives to maintain their energy and focus, even in a job they love. Whether it’s being overwhelmed by the day to day, at odds with a team that can’t follow the vision, or afraid of performing on a bigger stage, or a myriad of other situations, these emotion-filled circumstances can get in the way of leaders’ ability to lead.  Inspired by a recent read, Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, by Jerry Colonna, I’ve begun asking my clients one of Jerry’s signature questions, “How are you complicit in this situation?” Leaders always pause when I say that. I can sense them thinking, “Me, complicit in this?” But, the more successful leaders are able and willing to dig deeper to see how they might have a hand in creating the very situation that is so infuriating to them.

The Blind Spots

Just like everyone else, leaders respond to challenging situations with a range of emotional reactions: fear of failure, perfectionism, shame, conflict avoidance, or a desire to please others, among others. Often, these emotions are an unresolved holdover from childhood.  

A question like, “When did your conflict avoidance begin?”, helps leaders start to recognize how these emotions are still driving their behavior in ways that no longer serve them. Jerry’s theory is that the negative, un-reckoned-with emotions from childhood show up in our leadership, often in very damaging ways. For example, our research shows that a leader’s inability to create the opportunity for constructive conflict will limit a team’s ability to innovate. And leaders who are unable to let go of perfectionist-driven micromanagement can’t build the trust required to lead growth.

Additionally, these emotions often reduce a leader’s executive presence. For example, a leader who avoids conflict may not speak up in senior meetings when he’s not completely on board with a direction, therefore not adding his true value to the conversation and not demonstrating practical wisdom.

Mastering Demons

We all have buried emotions. They either show up negatively in our own leadership or we outsource them to members of our team (there’s more on this point in Jerry’s book.) It requires honest inquiry to uncover them, something most of us are unable to do on our own. That’s where working with a good coach can be highly valuable.

Once uncovered, we must deal with the emotion, so it doesn’t burden our teams and create career barriers that are impossible to hurdle. Here are three tips:

  1. Don’t bite the hook. In relationships with colleagues, a manager, or team members, it’s easy to be triggered by someone else’s strong emotion. Recognize this dynamic by noticing who you tend to react to and in what situations you’re likely to engage or bite the hook.
  2. Work with the emotion. Emotion is simply energy. It gets stronger when we bury it, often erupting in quite inopportune moments. Instead, take a few deep breaths when you feel agitated to let the energy dissipate.
  3. Have compassion. Because these emotions run deep, this is hard work and it takes time to build these new habits. Therefore, it’s critical to be kind and have compassion for yourself. Some days you’ll use these strategies well and some days you’ll forget them entirely. However, each time you do use them, you’ll strengthen the habit of making them your go-to response. And over time, your old ways will be distant memories.

Of course, understanding and working with emotion is only the beginning of the solution. It usually takes a good six to twelve months to truly master these demons. However, this realization is the critical initial step and leaders can’t begin to make change without this clarity. The next time you are confronted with a challenging situation, consider asking yourself how you might be contributing and see where that takes you.

Related Blog: Overcoming Bias




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