Leadership, emotion and behavior

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Leaders, like you, frequently face the following, often conflicting, situation:

  • Leaders are human beings and thus have emotions.
  • Leaders must lead by example. Everyone is watching. 

Because both of these statements are true and coexist in the space/time continuum, great leaders must learn to be mindful of how their emotions affect their behavior. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • A baseball team is mired in a ten-game losing streak. The manager’s emotions include frustration, disappointment, even anger. The players are looking to him for encouragement and support to regain their confidence and end the losing streak.
  • A dairy farmer I knew was very discouraged and frustrated by the economic conditions facing his dairy. He often expressed his frustration by saying, “If conditions don’t improve, we will be out of business.” His statement so alarmed his key employee that she sought and found a position at another dairy.

As we can see in the two situations, leaders cannot always share all of their emotions with their followers, be they partners, employees, colleagues — even family members and friends. So what are leaders to do?

First, what not to do! Do not feel you should not have emotions or try to suppress those emotions. Emotions are natural, human reactions to situations. Suppressing the emotion or feeling guilty about having an emotion will only place more stress on you, the leader.

What leaders should do is to recognize the difference between emotions and the behaviors that we exhibit resulting from those emotions. As indicated above, emotions are normal and very personal. The effect and impact of the emotion is primarily on the person having the emotion — it is internal. This is the reason we should NEVER tell someone else how to feel. For example, “Don’t be angry!” is a no-no!

However, our behavior in response to the emotion is VERY DIFFERENT. The effect of the resulting behavior is primarily external. The impact is primarily on others. Since the impacts are external, other individuals and our environment, our followers, are impacted by behavior resulting from the emotion we experienced.

Although our emotional reactions are natural and largely beyond our control, our resulting behavior is completely under our control. The baseball manager did not have to infect his team with his discouragement. The dairy farmer did not have to complain in front of his key employee.

When we react to our emotions without thinking about how those around us will perceive our behavior, we are engaging in instinctive behavior. We then ignore our decision opportunity and instead act instinctively based solely on our emotions.

The alternative is to think before we act — thoughtful behavior. Now we are seizing a decision opportunity. We can proactively consider the best behaviors to lead by example. The baseball manager will realize that his team needs encouragement, not discouragement, and act accordingly. The dairy farmer would have realized that his complaining was sending an entirely unintended message to his key employee.

Through thoughtful behavior, we have provided our followers with what they need from their leader. But what about the leader? Acting differently (often the opposite) of our emotions can take a toll on the leader’s emotions. This is one of the reasons I recommend that every manager and leader have a confidant.

A confidant is an individual with whom you can “let your hair down.” You can express and discuss your true emotions. You can brainstorm and discuss thoughtful behaviors. You can think through the real or root causes of your emotions and why you are feeling the way you are.

Leadership Lesson: Leaders must not deny or feel guilty about their emotions; however, their resulting behavior must be thoughtful and based on the realization that followers are watching closely.

Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and Professor Emeritus at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He can be reached at rmilligan@trsmith.com or 651-647-0495.


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