Emotional Health for Improved Leadership

Being emotionally healthy is often a matter of perspective. Though we might feel we can quantify other people’s responses to life, the responders themselves may be of a different mind as to the rightness of their actions. This is why leaders’ own judgments need great care. The brain partly assesses situations quickly through the recognition of behavioural patterns but it also stores memories along with emotional tags. This means that leaders’ treatment of people can contain an inherent, though unintentional, bias. There are three major triggers for such lose-lose outcomes in otherwise-well adjusted leaders, each with a clear remedy and some suggested resources.

1. Past emotions need to be separated from present judgments.

The brain recognition process allows leaders to sum up situations quickly as they draw on comparable or related experiences to determine a course of action. Unfortunately, the brain can misjudge those responses if it is biased by emotional attachments to memories.

For example, a person who has offended a leader or who has been misjudged by others in the past may be discounted from consideration for a role, even if they are the best person for the job. We can believe this to be a sound call, whereas it may reflect a lack of grace or fairness. This all happens somewhat unconsciously.

Similarly, we can respond unfairly to people based on how others have reacted in similar circumstances in the past. This can take us into the dangerous territory of presuming motives that we could not know with certainty.

Independent voices, such as those without the same baggage, may need to assess people afresh or to discuss and question relevant situations candidly if potential exists for self-interest, misinformation, or emotionalism. This is not to say that people should never be second-guessed or that leaders are not intuitive, but no leader’s impartiality is immune from being somewhat clouded.

For more great tips on this subject, Harvard Business Review’s ‘On Emotional Intelligence’ offers a concise summary of useful insights.

2. Emotional viruses need quarantining to safeguard our influence.

Leaders who think they have separated facts from emotions in their decision making often fail to see how their general interactions and comments betray a lack of emotional health.

It has been said that people often remember how we made them feel more than remembering anything we said. This may be less true of those we know well, but can also explain how leaders sometimes adversely affect others.

Emotional imbalance attaches to our own leadership style and actions like a computer virus that replicates itself with harm we don’t see. For some leaders, this becomes the ransom-ware for which the price they unwittingly demand is greater allegiance or the surrender of control. We can therefore address blind spots in others without actually seeing our own.

Feedback is rarely volunteered and, if solicited, is usually guarded and minimal at best. That means we all need other experienced leaders to offer us advice we don’t always want to hear.

It also means that we need to be extra attentive to what people say when we ask for their thoughts, or when they are bold enough to share them. We need to value the kernel of truth and be prepared to explore it further, albeit with the need for some evidence or substantiation.

Teams might offer peer-mentoring with coded phrases that highlight potential light-bulb moments. Well-handled, without defensiveness and emotionalism, ensuing discussions can promote a team’s maturity and trust.

Also, leaders need to intentionally reframe their responses to their world in positive terms to best impact others with greater encouragement than is usually believed to be necessary.

Avoiding extremes and generalisations is easier when attached emotions are more clearly linked to past events so as to find triggers, generate any forgiveness needed, and build positive memories and thought processes.

This needed self-awareness, respect for others who know us well, and possibly some complementary lifestyle adjustments such as better diet and exercise, specialist advice/treatment, and more purposeful and positive socialisation.

Some practical tips on dealing with toxic thoughts and emotions are found in Caroline Leaf’s ‘Who Switched Off My Brain?

3. ‘Stuckness’ is temporary for resilient leaders who grow themselves and others.

Resilient people are not perfect, but they bounce back from adversity by first realising that they are not alone in being opposed, frustrated, or mistreated.

Those who offend still need to be confronted and addressed, but the focus is not retribution or justice. Relationship is the driver. Estranged family members, for example, often fail to appreciate the value of relationship over ‘rightness’. In many other social contexts, people simply move on, but carry their pain with them only for it to resurface in a disproportionate over-reaction.

Resilient people accept that hardships happen but, as well as not avoiding them, they also don’t stay stuck on fixing them. New ways forward need an imperfect resolution with grace, forbearance, and an unconditionally loving heart toward others.

Rewiring the brain builds on the previous steps of dissociating negative emotions and then eliminating them through forgiveness and reframing. It then finds new meaning in circumstances. To avoid ‘awfulising’ or overstating injustice, my prayer needs to be: ‘What do I need to learn or see in order to best grow myself and others?’ This is preferable to (and more positive than): ‘Why am I suffering so unfairly?’

Many of life’s hardships are out of our control, but resilient people can often see a better way to respond. When we don’t feel resilient, we sometimes need the help of resilient people. Leaders must get that help from other leaders or they will limit their own ability to lead others. Resilient people can be resourceful and innovative. Importantly, they help us to see what we don’t, can’t, or won’t see.

Shame can sadly rob us, too, of the regulating help of friends when in our hour of greatest need. Consider, though, whether someone thinking less of us for needing them is really worth the price of our silence. True friendships are priceless for the ability to draw on them when we most need impartial and informed advisers.

When leaders’ decisions and impact is at its greatest reach, the need for receiving such help and also providing it for others is of the greatest importance.

A very readable and practical guide to building resilience is found in research professor, Brené Brown’s, ‘Rising Strong.’

The emotional health of others is most simply conditioned by thinking outwardly on purpose. I have seen many leaders obsess about the injustices and pain they carry and then fail to think beyond it. The best leaders consider others’ well-being while also considering their own.

Self-sacrifice and humility not only shapes greater influence in our leadership but it also fosters the grace under fire and the unconditional love we need to move us beyond our own present circumstances and to inspire the same attitude in others.

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