Because our world requires such complex interaction and our brains are not naturally equipped to respond effectively to all that stimuli, we must teach ourselves how to manage the stressors we face in an emotionally intelligent way so that we can be better leaders. By practicing how we respond to our emotions, we become the type of mindful and equanimous leaders that our colleagues choose to follow.
In Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman discusses developing self-awareness within leaders as the “leadership paradox” because it requires us to connect with our individual values before we can lead anyone. As leaders, we must understand at a deeply personal level exactly what drives us, how our emotions align with what we wish to accomplish with our teams and how those goals are translated into action. As Goleman puts it,
“Self-awareness . . . is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even in the midst of turbulent emotions.”
Not surprisingly, this requires us to be mindful of those feelings and physical states that drive our behavior.
Bringing our attention to our emotions is the foundation of self-awareness.
Mindfully becoming aware of each emotion (“Right now, I’m feeling angry”) tees up the succeeding steps. Next, we pull those emotions apart to see what’s underneath. By taking one feeling and peeling away its layers we will inevitably see more fundamental root-level emotions and, by paying attention to them, we subsequently can start addressing the broader impact to ourselves and our teams.
Like many, I have held onto anger and allowed it to bleed into my interactions at work and home. A colleague may not come through effectively on a deadline and, rather than mindfully responding to that emotion, I allowed my anger to carry over to conversations with other work colleagues and even brought it home with me, resulting in being clipped in exchanges with my family. I have had to learn how to pay attention to that emotion in that moment and break it into pieces.
For example, I might be able find fear lurking behind my anger.
I’m dependent on this colleague to be successful and, if they don’t come through, my job may be at risk.
Why doesn’t she share my sense of urgency on this project?
By mindfully attending to these sub-emotions and challenging their root, we begin to own our emotions and they begin to change. With practice of self-awareness (yes – awareness can be a learned trait), we become able to more objectively observe and respond the emotion rather than be consumed by it.
By being aware (mindful) of the present moment, we bring greater attention to what we are feeling. The goal is not to eliminate the emotion but to be aware of it. Sometimes, being aware of the root emotion is enough to lessen its impact but oftentimes that awareness has no effect or actually strengthens it. That’s OK. The goal is merely to bring attention to the emotion without the burden of eradicating it. As we practice being mindful of these emotions, we become more adept at understanding their origin and thereby minimizing their impact. As a result, we can lessen their unintended consequences on our ability to lead effectively.
Like anything we do, this gets easier with practice.
Consistent awareness to our emotional attachments and their unintended consequences can lead to deeper analysis. You may even find yourself intentionally digging into your personal vault of emotions and peeling them back in order to pay attention to their sub-emotions. This is the work that starts to rewire ourselves so that we may begin to neurologically build new pre-frontal cortex pathways that provide healthier choices for us.
It’s heady stuff so tread carefully.
Confronting emotions that are the foundations of our personalities (e.g., judgment of others, low self-esteem, loneliness, the need to be perfect) can be draining but the reward is being able to lesson our suffering, as noted mindfulness author Pema Chodron writes in Getting Unstuck (2005).
Chodron compares this self-awareness practice with having scabies,
“scratching the itch of discomfort provides only temporary relief but spreads the disease”.
In other words, we must dig into what’s behind what we’re feeling if we want to move away from short-term relief (scratching) for long-term relief (no itch).
But we have to be willing to do the work.
Chodron calls it “shenpa” (the Tibetan word for attachment) and highlights how we get hooked and consequently stuck on thoughts that affect our behavior long after the catalyst has passed. She points out that we need to explore these emotions that hook us and that will lead us to self-awareness.
But don’t start there. We have enough work to do right now with those daily examples that are getting in the way of our ability to lead with equanimity. As we peel back our emotional layers, we expose those basic feelings and beliefs that are at the root of many of our leadership barriers.
With our newfound recognition, we may start to model a new behavior for those we lead. In situations where displays of anger have traditionally been the norm, they are replaced with demonstrations of calm and, over time, our colleagues learn the benefits of choosing more equanimous responses when confronted with work-related stressors.
Mindful Follow-Up Questions
- How do your emotions drive your leadership decisions?
- Can you think of a time when you didn’t recognize how your reaction to your emotions led to poorer-than-expected outcomes?
- What kinds of reflective opportunities exist for you to practice being aware of how your emotional reactions drive behavior in your workplace?
- Do your direct reports have a tendency to mirror your emotional reactions? If yes, is there opportunity to practice being more self-aware in order to model equanimity to your teams?
- What specific steps can you start taking today?