Rooting Out Our Leadership Reactivity

Every summer I get weeds in my lawn. Big, ugly, disgusting weeds, some with sharp burrs that dig into the paws of our (pampered) dogs.

And every summer I pull out those weeds. Some summers better than others.

If I’m in a hurry, I pull on a weed quickly and it snaps off at the top. I move on in my haste, knowing full well that the weed will return, bigger and uglier than before. If I’m smart, however, I’ll slow down and pull that weed out by the roots. This alone solves the problem.

All of us have weeds that grow in the lawn of our leadership, emotional reactivity to stressful situations. It’s far too easy in the busyness that has become life today to deal with these weeds in a surface manner, simply snapping them off at the top. But their roots remain. Those roots keep growing in the soil of our soul and come back to afflict us, bigger and uglier than before.

Two Varieties of Reactivity

The weeds of emotional reactivity as a leader come in two varieties: implosion and explosion.

Implosion occurs when we stew in our own juices, emotionally reacting internally to a person or a situation with bitterness, malice, and resentment. As Nelson Mandela once said, this is like taking poison and expecting it to kill our enemies. It only kills ourselves.

Explosion is a killer as well. This occurs when we emotionally react externally to a person or a situation with outbursts of anger and accusation. Leaders who act this way get what they ask for—forced compliance—but not what they want—respect and followership. Additionally, an angry leader injects anxiety into the blood stream of the organizational system, making it less responsive and less resilient. Fear paralyzes. It does not empower.

READ: The Angry Leader: Lessons from C-Suite Meltdowns

And then, of course, there is the implosion that becomes an explosion, like a simmering pot of water that eventually boils over. It’s a myth that we can keep our emotions to ourselves as leaders, buttoned up and bottled up. They eventually come out, through overt actions or covert passive aggression.

Human beings are not robots. Unless we process the feelings we possess, they will possess us. Often in ways that are extremely unproductive.

How to Process Reactivity

How do we process our reactive emotions as leaders? How can we pull out the weeds that ruin our effectiveness by the roots? Here are five questions I ask my executive coaching clients to help them complete this important work:

  1. What happened?
  2. What do I really feel about what happened and why?
  3. What’s the story I’m telling myself about this person or situation?
  4. What’s a better story?
  5. What nonreactive steps of action can I take to address this person or situation?

The first question is the easiest. Simply recount what happened. The second question, however, begins to explore with complete honestly the emotions that were stirred up by what happened and why those emotions came to the fore. This gets us into the soil of our soul and exposes the roots of reactivity festering there, perhaps for years.

As a leader who grew up in a violent, chaotic home with an alcoholic parent, I’ve learned to be especially attentive to my angry reactions. Often they uncover a shadow from my family of origin still affecting me. Because of this background, I lead with a limp. But that limp keeps me in tune with my emotions, which is a very good thing.

Inevitably, in an emotionally reactive situation, we tell ourselves a story. And it’s never a good story. Questions four and five ask us to suspend our stories and create a new, positive narrative to change they way we think about the person or the situation at hand. There’s some great research on how this change of perspective alone can transform most any challenging circumstance.

Finally, it’s time to act. But in a different way, a nonreactive way. What steps of action can you take to make a productive contribution to resolving this issue? Or not take. Sometimes the best step of action is doing nothing: not having a snappy comeback but letting things go. Social media has made us all over-talkers, and, frankly, the very best thing we can learn how to do right now is simply shut up.

Taking Time to Journal

My executive coaching clients journal about these questions to process their reactions to an event in the past, a post-mortem (so to speak), or to process something that’s very much in the present. These questions act as a weed puller, whose slender tines drive deep into the ground, pulling out an alien plant by the roots.

And, yes, this takes time.

You’re not going to journal about your feelings when you’ve got a number to hit at the end of the month, end of the quarter, and end of the year. I get it. But there’s three-quarters of the year left for you to invest the time it takes to become a better leader by answering the five questions above about the emotional reactions you’re experiencing.

READ: Five Reasons Every Leader Should Keep a Journal

The Good News Is…

The good news about my lawn is this: The more weeds I pull out by the roots, the less weeds there are each summer. The health of the soil and the growth of the grass keeps them away. The same is true for leadership. And while we will never be weed free—perfection is unattainable this side of eternity—we can become more composed and more mature every day.

That’s good news, too, for you, your people, and the organization you serve.

Photo provided by: Free Stock photos by Vecteezy

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