In order to control your emotions, you need to first identify them and then be intentional about leading them rather than following them. The ability to identify emotion is one thing that makes Warren Buffett such a good investor. He notices when fear or other emotions have affected the market, and he refuses to get caught up in the hysteria of the moment. Instead, he leads through the emotions by making value-based decisions and future-based judgments. He can’t control the stock market, but he can control his choices. Inevitably, over time, those principled and non-panicked decisions propel him forward. With a treasure hunt you are given a treasure map, compass and clues to find your way along the route.
As a leader, it’s neither possible nor desirable for you to lead without emotions. You’re not a robot. You are a human leading other humans, and emotions are intertwined in everything humans say and do. Trying to divorce yourself of all feelings would be both damaging and boring. Instead, put your energy into identifying your emotions and then leading your emotions. Leaders who can’t control their emotions are, in a sense, emotionally immature. They might be organizational giants, but they are emotional toddlers. One of the defining characteristics of toddlers is extreme emotions: they can go from hysterical laughter to maniacal rage to angelic slumber in a matter of moments. That’s understandable in children. But when an adult manifests the emotional instability of a child, something is wrong, and someone is going to get hurt. And the hurt is only magnified when that adult is also a leader, because a leader has even greater influence.
Emotionally unstable leaders have power, but they don’t have the self-control needed to manage that power in difficult moments. If they are unduly controlled by things such as fear or anger, they easily misuse their power. For example, emotionally unstable leaders might fire a valuable employee in a moment of rage. They might make rash decisions that affect the whole organization, such as shutting down a department or selling out to the competition. They might use their platform to make public statements that spread fear or defame individuals. They aren’t necessarily bad people, and they don’t necessarily have evil intentions—but because they can’t control their reactions, they end up making decisions that are ill-advised, irrational, and at times even illegal or immoral.
The problem is, we can often hide our emotional instability behind organizational or leadership strengths. If we speak well in public, make generally good decisions, motivate people, raise funds, win arguments, negotiate, delegate, organize, create good products, brainstorm new ideas, envision the future, or do a good job at any of the other things leaders do, we will likely be considered a good leader. But if we can’t identify when we are upset or fearful and control our reactions, we will inevitably end up sabotaging our leadership and hurting those we lead. An emotionally weak leader is a weak leader. Period.
Emotionally mature leaders identify those emotions for what they are and then lead themselves out of instability. Emotional instability has an especially negative effect on decisions and relationships, two of the most important things a leader must protect. Leaders who are emotional toddlers tend to respond to stress by making hasty decisions, correcting people harshly, giving up on projects prematurely, posting nasty blogs, firing people on impulse, and lashing out at family members or team members. They grab a nap or a sandwich, decompress, and then face the situation from a more stable place. All of us have been in seasons and settings in which we gave in to our emotions, and we know the feelings of regret that follow. We realize, after the fact, I reacted out of my emotions. I spoke out of my fear and stress. My anger got the best of me. I’m not talking about a passionate personality; I’m talking about emotional instability. Emotional instability is what causes us to spend money we shouldn’t spend, eat things we shouldn’t eat, talk in ways we would normally never talk, flirt with someone we should stay away from, and ultimately live in a world of regret because we can’t identify and lead our emotions. The key to leading yourself in this area is to be intentional about understanding your emotional makeup, and then choosing to control your emotions so your emotions don’t control you.