THE HUMAN SIDE OF LEADERSHIP: RESPOND; DON'T REACT

I was conducting a program on leadership for a bank in Kolkatta. A section of the program required a senior executive of the bank to come and speak with the front line team (the one that deals with the customers) on demonitization and it's effects on bank and customers. The background was that while the news of demonitization was made public, the bank did not receive any formal notification from the RBI about the guidelines that needed to be followed during this time. The top management of the bank decided to wait for the formal notification from RBI before allowing customers to deposit or change money. What it meant was that while many other banks were accepting money from their customers and helping change denominations, this bank was asking their customers to wait for the formal notification from RBI before they could do the same. What this resulted in was a stressed front line team headed by an equally, if not more stressed boss. The session was supposed to be platform for the executive leader to manage the anxiety and frustration of the front line team. However as his session progressed, one could hear the frustration and anxiety of the leader come out more prominently. While he was saying all the right things to the team, his body and emotions were conveying something else. As a result, what was meant to be a calming session ended up increasing the anxiety of the team even more.

We often come across situations which trigger intense reactions from us. A word that makes us angry, a task that frustrates us, even an achievement which gives us immense joy. Emotion is a very human response to any stimulus. In fact, research shows that we first respond to stimulus emotionally. Neurologically speaking, emotions are generated in the 'Limbic system' of the brain. In most cases our 'Rational Brain' intervenes and we respond to situations in an effective manner. For example, some people may experience a little stress when they are asked to speak in public. Most of the time this stress is managed effectively before they entire the stage and thus they can deliver their speech without any problems.

However, there are often times when our Limbic system hijacks the rational mind. In such instances our emotions take control of us, our thinking brain shuts down and we react to situations . Our reactions are then governed by our primitive brain; fight or flight. For instance, in the above example when the stress of public speaking is not managed, people experience palpitation, sweat, dry throat; basically all symptoms which gear the body to fight or run away. Such a response is highly ineffective. Therefore it is important to not let the primitive brain hijack the rational brain.



Managing emotions is a critical aspect of effective leadership. Travis Bradberry shares that an effective leader is someone who is aware of an emotion and decides to channel that emotion in a behavior that they want (Travis Bradberry interviewed by Jim Canfield, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCfEOlOZJSg). Managing your emotions does not mean stuffing them down. Emotions are an important part of a persons' being. However, you can chose how you act based on that emotion. Effective leaders are aware of what they are feeling at a given moment and choose to behave in the most effective route for that feeling. To illustrate this with an example, let us take the case of the earlier example of the bank senior executive.


The senior executive was clearly feeling anxious and stressed due to the recent changes in the environment. However, what he needed to do was to reduce the anxiety his junior team felt so that they could get the work done effectively. The first step for him would be to recognize the anxiety and frustration that he was feeling. After acknowledging the anxiety and frustration, he should channel those into a route that is most effective; perhaps use the energy to focus on getting solutions that may reduce the anxiety and frustration. Once he does this work for himself, he is open to understand the feelings of others and help them route their energies to finding solutions to a stressful situation. When the energy of the anxiety is channeled in problem solving, the entire team can come up with positive solutions which then help the organization. However, if the anxiety is left to rule (as in the case of this leader), it generates more anxiety, stress and blaming within the organization which is highly ineffective. This is true of any emotion that one may feel.


It is a commonly held belief that only negative emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration need to be monitored and controlled. This is a myth. People often don't realize that positive emotions, when unmanaged, can often cause as much damage as negative emotions. In organizations when a product is doing really well and has reached it's high in it's life cycle, people tend to get carried away by success. This stops them from adapting to new situations and being flexible enough to let go of that success. They don't realize that the rational brain which helped them manage those stressful emotions will also help them manage these joyful emotions and channel this energy to match the changing needs of the environment. This is the same when successful older management needs to give way to younger management, when a successful company is merged with another company, when a new strategy needs to replace an older successful strategy. It is when one thinks that they don't need to learn new things because they have been successful in life so far.


So now the question is how can one manage their emotions? Self awareness is the first step towards being able to manage emotions. One needs to be aware of what they are feeling at a given moment to be able to successful channel it. The second important step is to accept responsibility for the response to an emotion. As Brain Tracy says nobody makes you angry, you decide to use anger as a response. Accept that you can choose how you respond to a situation. These are the foundations on which you can then use certain tools successfully to manage emotions. For example, when angry, you can choose to walk away from the situation till you cool down. Or when feeling anxious, you can choose to remember your success stories so that your anxiety is lessened. Or when feeling joyful at successfully completing a task, you choose to use that energy to do something different. Writing down emotions and your responses to it can also help you see patterns of your behavior so you can be more prepared the next time you find yourself in similar situations.


This is certainly not an easy task to do but it is essential if you want to be a successful leader. When you practice certain behaviors, over time they become habits. When thoughts and behaviors become habit, neurologically, they cause specific circuits to grow stronger over time. This means that while practicing a certain behavior may initially burn you out, once it becomes habit, it will be as smooth as breathing. A big part of emotional intelligence is being able to feel an emotion without having to act on it

Gifted leadership occurs when heart and head-feelings and thoughts- meet. These are the two winds that allow a leader to soar-Daniel Goleman

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