“Because I said so…”. This is a “powerful” sentence that (almost) every child has heard at least once. When they are criticized, misunderstood or just denied of what they want (with no explanation whatsoever), a child’s first impulse is either to dissolve into tears and/or to push back, puffing and woofing angrily towards the “repressor/enemy” (usually an adult). They want to show that they are in pain (psychologically) and frustrated.
But when you are 4 or 5 or 7 years old, it’s almost impossible to describe eloquently your state of mind, your emotions. It’s much easier to display them. This is why, in those particular moments, children begin to shout, whimper or scream. They actually begin to (what psychologist call) act-out (their feelings/emotions/ frustrations).
And guess what? In the adult world, it’s almost the same.
As adults, we learn to restrain (even repress) ourselves from physically exhibiting our (deep) emotions. We try to explain them, rationalise them as much as possible. However, as soon as somebody is “pushing” (harder) our buttons, we tend to return to our inner (indignant) child. We sulk, puff and woof, retreating from that conversation or, quite the opposite, retaliating in a strong, powerful manner. And, more often than we think, we want to protect ourselves by being more offensive. Instead of understanding our fears, insecurities and self-doubts, we block them and, most importantly, we turn them back on our opponent/”enemy”.
Didn’t you feel, after a dense, heated conversation and after you had time to cool off, that you might have just overreacted? That some of the actions you took and/or replies you uttered seemed (after you cooled off) exaggerated and inflamed considering the light weight of the topic itself?
That’s because you acted-out your state of mind. In that particular moment, the anger you experienced came from the fear that you will not get what you need/want, that you are not loved, not respected, not included/accepted by the group.
Isn’t that exactly how it was when we were kids, only with more psychological “baggage” accumulated over the years? We are adults now, we can be angry and fight back with more power and more means. We can win this one - not like when we were kids.
Oh, this is such an illusion…
Now, imagine all of these for an individual in a leadership position. The number of threats and (possible) conflicts rise exponentially. Higher expectations and greater ambition bring an increased level of stress and anxiety. All of the repressed fears, emotions find an easier way to surface and the individual (the leader?!?) is more prone to act-out in difficult times such as short deadlines, conflicting teams, disgruntled employees, stressful projects and more. Just like in childhood, acting-out brings (most of the time) many disadvantages and problems in any human relation.
Obviously, we wonder if we can avoid these situations as much as possible or, at least, reduce their probability. It’s hard to give a recipe for such a complex psychological matter.
However, I would venture a guess and offer three key elements that, in my opinion, any individual should focus on if she/he wants to be a better person (and, consequently, a better leader). As a side note - these are also core elements of servant leadership and promoted as such.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure. Emotions, sensations, feelings, fears: all of them are part of a “world” that constitutes the foundation of any relationship; being personal or professional. Therefore, we must not ignore them but try to understand and have them work for our benefit as individuals, especially, for the ones aspiring to lead.
To be the leader everyone expects today, we need to heal the “wounds” from yesterday or, at least, acknowledge and start working on them. And this is the toughest leadership decision that any of us wishing to lead has to make.
Are you up for it?