Stress and pressure trigger the emotional brain, which can lead to unhelpful/ineffective responses in a range of leadership situations. Since executives (and many of the rest of us) are under lots of stress and pressure, it stands to reason that their emotional brains will hijack them and bring forth less-than-stellar leadership skills.
In fact, Michael Sanger from Hogan Assessments put it this way in an article I read the other day:
“Executives are nothing but messed up grown-ups dealing with the same psychological issues they’ve been harboring their whole lives. And just like their parents, teachers, and bullies in the schoolyards, their bosses, peers, and subordinates (as well as the stress of the job itself) can make them feel inadequate and emotionally insecure. Thus an almost uncontrollable reaction emerges. So why do they act this way? Partly habit, and partly because it’s worked for them in some way in the past…”
Wow, that’s powerful—and frightening. (And it explains the presidential debates?)
Executives who often show up as confident and competent are also affected by the same insecurities and inadequacies of the rest of us? Absolutely. Always.
We all have emotional “dark sides” that show up sometimes. While the behavior that people show is different (e.g., some avoid, some get combative), underneath it all is hurt in some form—insecurity, vulnerability, fear.
The difference in great leaders—and mature people—is that they know what their dark sides are, they can predict the situations that may trigger them, and they have practiced responses that are more, rather than less, effective than their natural habit.
But this takes a deep understanding of our feelings in the moment, in order to accept and be aware (sometimes painfully so) of our fears and vulnerability. It also takes an ability to be humble—to admit to the mistakes we make. It takes empathy to see the world from the perspective of those we work with, so we can understand how our behavior affects them—and care about harm we cause. And it takes practice so that appropriate leadership behavior shows, rather than grade-school behavior. Those leaders who do this are the strongest leaders I know. They are just plain extraordinary human beings too.
I don’t know about you, but I want a few more extraordinary people in leadership and in life in general. I am growing increasingly weary of the attitude that a good defense is a good offense. I am sad when I hear about the impact of aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior. And I see many teams where internal competition among members is costly.
If your dark side shows (and it always will sometimes), welcome to the club. However, as a leader, if you aren’t aware of it and its impact on you and your organization, you can do something about that. And it’s worth it, if for no other reason than to be a kinder, gentler person. After this election season, I’m all for that.