Becoming an “unemotional” emotional leader

mochavodkavaliumlattePrior to leaving my last job, I had the opportunity to participate in an “Emerging Leaders” program as part of our national organization’s commitment to developing the next generation of conservation leaders. Pretty cool, right?

Similar to other leadership development programs, we were asked to take a self-assessment through the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking. From this assessment, each participant received a developmental readiness score based on their perceived willingness and ability to…? You guessed it — lead!

Willingness stems from the person’s actual motivation to develop (i.e. learning goal orientation, leadership self-confidence, internal motivation to learn, and motivation to lead) and the ability to make a change in one’s leadership (which requires emotional regulation, taking different perspectives, metacognitive awareness, and self-concept clarity). A lot of terms and phrases to say: what kind of leader am I right now and where can I improve to be ready to lead?

What did I glean about myself from this initial assessment back in September 2017? Here are some of the takeaways:

  • I’m very self-motivated (i.e. I believe that have the ability to effectively create complex plans, problem solve, understand & inspire others as well as accomplish the demands of a leadership role).
  • I have a strong sense of identity and knowledge about areas where I excel and areas where I need further development.
  • I like learning from challenges and see increases in workload as an opportunity to be more resilient (wait, what? Is this the most nonprofit skill ever?)
  • I’m much less confident in my beliefs that I have the ability to determine and use the means necessary to effectively lead others (i.e. knowing what resources and supports to employ, policies and procedures).
  • My internal drive to be a leader is more than 2x that of my external drive (i.e. extrinsic factors).
  • I DO NOT CONSTRAIN MY EMOTIONS WELL ESPECIALLY DURING DIFFICULT SITUATIONS.

Emotions from Inside Out movie

You better believe that when I turned to the emotional regulation section and saw my abysmal score, I immediately became defensive and hotheaded.

Oh, right, that should have been the moment when the lightbulb above my head turned on; alas, it did not quite yet.

I’m pretty confident that at this point in our large group, I questioned the validity of this section and threw out a query around gender dynamics at play in perceived leadership models. Not to say that my question wasn’t probing into a real implicit bias rooted in the data…but…I think I was letting my emotions run wild and dominate the discourse.

For those of you who know me well, you may be shocked that I was this unaware of my lack of emotional constraint. Personally, I thought that I had made great strides in tempering my emotions over the years, particularly my anger. But, I was not connecting the dots that emotional regulation is more than shifting moods and using a calmer tone during times of strife. Emotional regulation for a leader also demands that the leader be aware of how their emotions are impacting the room through verbal AND nonverbal cues.

If I’m upset, it is written all over my face; if I’m disappointed, you will feel the weight of that disappointed through my sigh. When I’m frustrated, the static in the room puts all of your arm hairs on notice. I’m a fiery mess of emotional distress when the ship gets rocked.

On the flip side, when things are rocking and rolling, feelings of excitement, energy, and happiness swallow the space. Woo!

Still, as someone who wants to be ready and able to lead, I can’t let any of my emotions — the good ones or the bad ones — take center stage. That is not fair to the people around me, and it holds me back from being able to be the leader that I want to be.

How does one improve their emotional regulation? I’m glad you asked. One of the suggestions from the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking is to take time to reflect on what emotions are being surfaced to understand how you feel. Perhaps keeping a journal where you can notice what feelings are arising and name the feeling. What led you to that experience? How are you thinking about it and expressing it?

At the suggestion of my friend Sandy (who also happens to be the incredible editor of the Philanthropy Journal), I purchased a year-long subscription to the meditation app Calm. I had tried a couple of other meditation apps that were free but never fully invested my time into either. Calm has been a game-changer. The combination of the narrator’s soothing voice, the well-paced meditations, and the multiple areas of focus have already had a positive impact on my ability to regulate my emotions (not to mention be more mindful overall). I’ve developed a stronger awareness of what triggers certain emotions; I can acknowledge those emotions and be aware of them without giving them the platform to take over.

As with anything, shifting my behavior remains a process, one that I’m certainly committed to as I can see the benefits of becoming more in tune with my emotions and how they play out in life and with others.

Are you a leader who struggles with emotional regulation? Do you tend to over-emote, like me? Or are you more of a constrainer, a person who tends to mask their inner feelings and outward displays of emotion during stressful situations? Or, are you the Goldilocks of emotional regulation and do it just right

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