THE EMOTIONAL BEARING OF A LEADER
A while ago I had the kind of low-grade office politicking experience which drives all of us crazy: an individual had gone behind my back to run to a senior manager, emailing him about a project I was leading and pre-empting a key aspect of the work effort – all without the courtesy of copying me in to the email. The offender had only marginal involvement in the project.
It was a cheap and painfully transparent ploy. The sort of passive-aggressive manoeuvre that people at work all too often endure with a roll of the eye and a knot in the stomach.
Thankfully for me, the senior manager – the recipient of the email – copied me into his reply (which was the only way I found out what happened) so I knew I was in good shape with the key player. And I had read the email by myself at home before coming into the office, so no-one at work heard my coprolalic outburst. (Only the neighbours).
[nb. coprolalia: the involuntary utterance of inappropriate or obscene words]
Having got it out of my system, I completed the piece of work in question to correct for the pre-emption, informed all the stakeholders, and took the opportunity to publicly thank the offender for the part of his involvement that did actually add value.
It has taken me a long time to learn to bite my tongue, resist the urge to engage in a verbal duel, and to be able to think through how everybody’s actions will be viewed by others and play out in the immersive theatre of the twenty-first century open plan office. And then to plan a response accordingly. (And it’s still very much a work in progress ...)
I’m glad for rising above the fray. Less than a week later the offender distinguished himself by having a loud argument with a woman member of staff in the middle of the office. After complaints to the senior manager, the offender now has less staff reporting to him.
What a surprise.
The Sleeping Issue: Emotional Stability
This episode of second-rate behaviour, and my successful effort to manage my response, occurred when I read the quote below about personality and work performance in a favourite text:
… what mattered was emotional stability and conscientiousness – being dependable, making plans, following through.
It was the reference to emotional stability that caught my eye. I couldn’t recall coming across anything in the leadership or management literature that referenced emotional stability. Cooperativeness, emotional intelligence, being a good team member … yes, yes and yes. The usual suspects. But not emotional stability.
This is all the more surprising given that the study from which the above quote cited was a meta-analysis of a century’s worth of research into personality and on-the-job performance.
Emotional Stability: Presence or Absence?
Emotional stability was defined in the research as the absence of anxiety, hostility, depression and personal insecurity. It’s interesting that it’s defined as an absence of negative traits, rather than the presence of positive ones, which leads me to think that the important aspect of emotional stability is the ability to internalise stress and complexity without allowing the latter to manifest. And the ability to seize opportunity without losing your head. It represents the space between stimulus and response which psychiatrist and writer Viktor E. Frankl associated with freedom and growth.
Reflecting the Reality of Management
It’s clear that in a management context emotional stability is especially important for leaders. But this is one of those insights that after a moment of reflection, yields to ‘Well of course.’ After all, how many of us have had a boss we looked up to who blew their stack? Don’t high performers usually have some gravitas and the even temper that goes with it?
Well, yes. But the management literature is a long time in catching up and reflecting this reality. And it’s the literature that we learn when we study our management courses, and which frames our understanding of the management task. It gives us our vocabulary for work. And if that vocabulary omits certain important words and phrases such as emotional stability then it will be a lucky-dip whether or not those aspects get a look-in during our working lives. It will fall to the vagaries of our own family upbringing, the mentors we encounter in the course of work, and what parts of the self-help literature we happen to read that will determine whether or not factors such as emotional stability appear on our radar.
The ‘Distribution’ of Stress … and Other Aspects of Emotional Stability
This notion of emotional stability as a prerequisite for good leadership is a huge area which warrants a lot more attention. To open the batting, here are a few particularly relevant aspects:
Author Robert Greene nicely elucidates in The 48 Laws of Power that temper tantrums and emotional outbursts do not signify power but rather indicate helplessness. ‘Once you train yourself not to take matters personally, and to control your emotional responses, you will have placed yourself in a position of tremendous power.’ Emotional stability is a cornerstone of power and authority: both highly desirable for leaders.
In Good to Great Jim Collins wrote about the leaders of successful companies who combine professional will and personal humility, who ‘subjugate their egoistic needs to the greater ambition of building something larger and more lasting than themselves.’ They look out the window to apportion credit for success, and look in the mirror to apportion responsibility for poor results. This humility – in combination with professional drive – presupposes emotional stability on the part of the CEO.
In a recent blog piece Roger Norton posed the question Are you managing or magnifying urgency for your people? It’s a timely question. Do you handle stress by delegating it to your subordinates? (Pass the Pain, as I am fond of saying, is a game the whole family can play…) Or do you have the emotional stability to hold it, and manage its ‘distribution’ through the workplace? Are you able to rise above simply recirculating tension, and instead channel it towards the joint effort that leads to a solution?
Enhancing Emotional Stability
What can you do to improve your emotional stability?
Coaching or counselling can help. So too can getting frank and fearless feedback from a trusted mentor or colleague.
But I particularly like the notion put forward by the authors of The Art of Possibility that staying with unpleasant experiences rather than fleeing, retreating or foisting blame is a powerful means of building emotional stability:
Closing the exits means staying with the feelings, whatever they are … the capacity to be present without resistance …
… feelings can be likened to muscles – the more intensively you stay with the exercise, closing the door on escape, the more emotional heavy lifting you can do. Then you become that much more of a player in your field of endeavour.
* * *
Emotional stability. A new concept to add to our management vocabulary. And a new dimension to add to our leadership competence.
Eventually my office politicking colleague will have to agree.
Director I Michael Carman Consulting
PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374
Murray R. Barrick, Michael K. Mount and Timothy A. Judge (2001) ‘Personality and Performance at the Beginning of the New Millennium: What Do We Know and Where Do We Go Next?’ International Journal of Selection and Assessment Vol. 9, March/June, pp. 9-30.
David Brooks (2012) The Social Animal Random House, p.165.
Jim Collins (2001) Good to Great Harper p.36.
Robert Greene The 48 Laws of Power Hodder, pp.329-330.
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (2002) The Art of Possibility pp.104-5.
© Michael Carman 2016