Leadership Through our Feelings: Lessons from Home

Picture of Richard Smith
Richard Smith

At home with my two young sons, we often talk about big feelings. When children experience certain feelings for the first time, these emotions can seem overwhelming. How can I do anything when I feel so angry/sad/frightened?

Recently I received communication from the teacher of my youngest son Miles, who was disrupting his elementary school class. He did not participate in group activities much of the time. When he did, he was distracting others from their work. This was a first for him, and I knew there had to be a reason for this sudden change.

I asked him what was causing this behavior. To me, he didn’t seem angry. He seemed sad. There was a good reason. A change in student enrollment required a rebalancing of student to teacher ratios. His closest friend had been moved into a different classroom.

Through his behavior, Miles was expressing his discomfort with being separated from his best buddy. He wanted to change the situation but had no control over it. He responded by limiting his participation in class, and his teacher responded with discipline. I determined punishment wouldn’t address the root cause of the issue. Miles needed to be heard (what happened?), affirmed (I understand that probably made you feel sad,) and treated with kindness (how can I help?)

Together we discussed how Miles could still spend time with his friend, like at recess and on scheduled playdates. We also addressed that acting out in class helped neither himself nor his classmates. He had a right to his feelings, and he could take some time to feel sad about this change outside the classroom. But with change, we often discover opportunity. He could open up to the possibility of new friendships with those he might have overlooked before. He felt better. Soon he had a plan, and his classroom behavior returned to its previously stellar status.

When leaders don’t address their big feelings in healthy ways, these emotions can influence behaviors, impacting their decision-making along with peer and direct report relationships.

Of course, not every situation resolves so easily.

And in the working world, our emotions can impact many more people.

When leaders don’t address their big feelings in healthy ways, these emotions can influence behaviors, impacting their decision-making along with peer and direct report relationships. They also can negatively affect their opportunities for growth. We need to accept that it’s all right to feel what we’re feeling. But we need to also focus on what we can control, how we react to it, and what we do next.

An executive who I’m coaching was distraught when we spoke recently. Her supervisor asked her a question about a decision she had made that she then decided to reverse when it proved to be unsatisfactory. They asked, “What did you learn?” The executive felt defensive about this question. She viewed it as an attack on her judgment and was embarrassed about a perception of failure.

I countered with this idea: When you talk about what you could have done better, it also prompts others in your orbit to reflect on what they could have done differently also. Rather than taking the question as a personal affront, could it provide an opportunity for mutual sharing of new ideas?

Her negative self-talk and fear of failing prevented her from learning from the experience and having a growth mindset conversation with her manager. I advised her that this hypercritical voice in her head was not serving her. Staying in negativity prevents us from moving forward with positive action.

I saw this play out at home, as well. My eldest son Richard II, also an elementary schooler, announced that he’d like to start a YouTube channel. I wanted to help him with the process, so I researched parental consents, safety measures to take, the list of equipment he’d need, and the steps to going “live.”

When I shared these details with him, he deflated.

Our personalities, inner voices and personal experiences shade how we experience emotions, hear information and take in feedback.

“Why don’t you want me to do this?” he asked. I was shocked. Rather than thinking this was the information needed to start an action plan, he heard “no.” His doubt that he could accomplish his goal caused the information to seem like barriers rather than steps to success.

I invited him to look at one of my recently recorded videos. I shared with him all the things that I had to do before I got to that point. I chose topics, honed my message, got the right equipment, went through multiple versions of wording, and hired production helpers. I wasn’t telling him no. I was sharing that it’s not as easy as it might look; it will take preparation and commitment on his part. I stood ready to help.

My list wasn’t a “no”,” it was a how-to. The lightbulb went off.

He recognized that I showed him the path to make his idea a reality. He started on his first script right away, with enthusiasm.

We never stop feeling big emotions because we are all human. Our personalities, inner voices, and personal experiences shade how we experience these emotions, hear information, and take in feedback.

These conversations I’ve had as a parent and coach inspired me to share some strategies to help when feelings get in the way of your progress as a leader.

Manage Your Self Talk

When you’re too busy telling yourself “No,” you may miss someone else telling you “Yes.”

The negative voice in your head doesn’t serve you, or any of your collaborators. It’s self-sabotaging. When constructive criticism comes, listen fully and look for actionable insights rather than viewing it as a personal attack. The same goes for opportunity. Don’t let your inner voice hold you back from doing something you may be unsure you can handle. As hockey Hall-of-Famer Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Allowing your inner voice to prevent you from growth opportunities would be squandering your potential.

Accept Feedback

In my work I find that some leaders have difficulty receiving and acting on feedback because of their self-doubt, insecurity or perception of inadequacy. They are so fearful of criticism that they avoid it to protect their egos. Still others are on the other end of the spectrum, impervious to feedback because they believe they are the smartest in the room. The truth is that the smartest people are always learning and seeking opportunities to improve. Refusing to listen to counsel doesn’t help you win. Insulating yourself from input also has a negative impact on colleagues: they don’t feel heard or developed. Remember, feedback is a tool for growth.

Acknowledge and Experience Emotions Productively

Big emotions are unavoidable. But once you experience them, decide what impact they’ll have your work and your leadership approach. If you find this challenging, work with a counselor or coach to develop tools for managing strong emotions. Then enable these emotions to fuel positive action, rather than destructive interactions with colleagues. Being aware of our feelings, and the feelings of others, is an essential part of being an emotionally intelligent leader, or having high EQ. When acknowledged and channeled, they can be drivers of success rather than reasons for derailment.

Take Time Out

Have you ever counted to ten when feeling a big emotion? As a parent, I’ve certainly done it. It’s a valuable idea to translate to workplace leadership as well. You don’t have to respond to every situation in real time. Pausing to take a break and gain control over your emotions is a sign of high EQ. Knowing when what you’re feeling will have a negative impact on your colleagues is a sign of leadership maturity. Take that walk. Grab a cold drink. Set a time to have a conversation that could be volatile if you were to have it right now. Treating yourself with compassion leads to treating others the same way.

Putting it All Together

Successfully navigating our emotions, whether at work or at home, takes practice. When it comes to experiencing big emotions, I recommend:

  • Cultivating a healthy relationship with your inner voice
  • Embracing constructive feedback
  • Taking pauses when needed
  • Leveraging emotions as catalysts for growth

You’ll enhance your EQ while creating an environment that is psychologically safe for colleagues. You will also encourage collaboration, understanding, and continuous improvement as a self-aware leader.