Sometimes I want to give the CEOs I know a T-shirt that says, “I’m right!” This is the message they convey when they say, “These guys just don’t get it.” “I’ve told them a hundred times to stop doing… and yet they still do it.” Smart executives are often right, but I’m not sure being right is what matters. When a leader’s tone is defensive, zealous, and self-righteous, she or he is ineffective at influencing others. This is what happens when we are convinced everyone else is the problem.
Consider Serena Williams’s recent tirade in the championship match at this year’s U.S. Open. This video clip is worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.
Serena was so emotionally reactive (for good reason or bad) that she was out of her body—she was in a very real way “beside herself.” Serena is a competitor first and foremost, and yet her judgment became impaired.
After the match she shared her judgments. She eventually acknowledged her opponent’s win. Serena never acknowledged her level of play and that her temper cost her the match. She had also brought out the worst in many of her fans: they booed the unfolding penalties and basically cheered Serena on as she threw a temper tantrum.
Anger is not a Problem
At some point, we’ve all lost it. There is nothing wrong with feeling or expressing anger. Yet when we lose control of our emotions, we can say things that are intense or even hurtful while we’re being whipped around by feelings we don’t even know we are having. Even if we remain calm on the outside and say the right things, when we are reactive, our nonverbals or vibe are not lost on others.
When we regain our composure, we often do nothing to clean up the mess we’ve made. Instead we pretend it didn’t happen, lay the blame on others, or rationalize our behavior. We might say to ourselves, “My team is full of well-paid adults, they can take it,” or, “They deserved it.”
It doesn’t matter who’s right. Being right, critical, loud, and threatening will not change other people. When we see others as the problem, we will bring out the worst in them and in ourselves. Amid a challenge, what matters is how effective we are at inspiring others to be their best and while staying true to our core values.
Three Steps to Defuse the Explosive
Step One: Take a Break – When you find yourself standing in a deepening hole, stop digging. Stop yelling, fighting, or talking. Breathe and say, “I need to take a break. Let’s pick this up later.” Give your body five minutes to recover from the release of its stress hormones.
Step Two: Self-Observe – Tune in to your body. Notice your emotions. What other emotions are below the anger? Anger often is an indication that your current situation is echoing a past experience. Reflect on the expectations, beliefs, and judgments that are causing your reaction. What core need is not being met? What core value has been threatened?
Step Three: Own It and Clean It Up – When things aren’t going as planned and your emotions have boiled over, you have the opportunity to be accountable for your behavior. This step starts with the words, “Here’s how I’ve contributed to this situation.” You can follow that with, “My frustration got the better of me, I’m sorry for that.” Accountability is the hardest work you will do as a leader. It’s no fun admitting you’ve betrayed one of your core values. It is no fun reflecting on the past and feeling the shame.
The Power of Shame
Your entire personality is built around protecting you from feeling shame. The bigger your ego, the harder it is to clean up your messes. Too many high-profile performers and leaders can’t see into their huge blind spots (i.e., their shadows) because doing so means having to experience the feeling of unworthiness they’ve dedicated their lives to avoiding and hiding.
Grounded, trustworthy leaders work hard to develop the emotional maturity needed to be transparent and hence vulnerable. Personally, I’ve stopped looking for grounded leaders. Instead I’ve focused my energy on being one of those grounded leaders with the hope that I will attract more of the same.
Master your emotions, stop trying to be right, and start being accountable. You may be surprised how much influence you can have on others when you do.