Why Great Leaders Get Angry--and Show It
Think about remarkably successful entrepreneurs. They're logical. They're rational. In the face of crisis or danger or even gross incompetence, they remain steely-eyed, focused, and on point.
They don't get angry--or at the very least they don't show their anger.
Unless, of course, they happen to be Steve Jobs. Or Jeff Bezos. Or Bill Gates. Or Larry Ellison. Or...
Most of us were taught that the only way to lead effectively is to eliminate, or at the very least swallow and hide, emotions like anger and frustration. Go professional or go home, right?
According to research conducted by Henry Evans and Colm Foster, emotional intelligence experts and authors of Step Up: Lead in Six Moments That Matter, the highest performing people and highest performing teams tap into and express their entire spectrum of emotions.
Which, when you think about it, makes sense: we all get angry (even this guy must get angry once in a while) so why not take advantage of that emotion?
Evans and Foster say anger is actually useful when harnessed and controlled because it fosters two useful behavioral capabilities.
- Anger creates focus. Get mad and you tend to focus on one thing--the source of your anger. You don't get distracted. You're not tempted to multitask. All you can see is what's in front of you. That degree of focus can be extremely powerful.
- Anger generates confidence. Get mad and the automatic rush of adrenaline heightens your senses and reduces your inhibitions. Anger--in small doses--can be the spark that gets you started.
But there's still one major problem with getting mad. When you're angry, it's easy to do and say things you later regret. That's why the key to harnessing anger is to find a way to stay smart and in control while you're angry.
Sound impossible? It's not. Here are two examples:
1. Get mad about an action, not a person. Say an employee makes a mistake. Venting by saying, "How could you be so stupid?" may make you feel better--for about 10 seconds--but it certainly won't help.
Saying, "You do a great job, but I'm really struggling to understand why you did that. Can we talk about it?" Directing your frustration at the action and not the employee helps reduce his or her feelings of defensiveness while still allowing you to express your frustration--which will help you both focus on solving the problem.
2. Use anger to overcome anxiety or fear. When we're nervous or scared we often later regret what we didn't say.
Say you're mad because a supplier didn't come through, but you're scared to say anything because you might damage a long-term business relationship. Don't hide from your fear or your anger. Accept that you're mad. Show, at least to a limited degree, that you're mad.
When you do, the rush of adrenaline will help move you out of the fear zone and into the sweet spot where you're excited and passionate and motivated--but not unreasonable or irrational.
Just Make Sure You Start Small
Most people hold on to feelings of anger too long. Their feelings build and build until they can no longer control themselves and then they explode. Totally losing your cool is counterproductive at best and incredibly damaging at worst. The key is to slowly and steadily allow yourself to express lower levels of anger, working up from irritation, then to frustration, then finally to anger.
Step one: When you feel irritated, don't swallow those feelings. Think about how you feel. Think about why you feel the way you feel. Then work with how you feel. Say what you need to say, letting a little of your irritation show through. You won't have to worry about losing your cool because, after all, you aren't angry--you're just irritated.
Then you can move up to the next level, expressing frustration. As you do, stay focused on how you feel. Ask yourself whether you're using your frustration as a weapon or as a tool.
Then move up to the final level, expressing anger. Again, step outside yourself as you do. Are you in charge of your anger and actions, or is anger in charge of you?
In time, as you learn to control and harness your feelings, you will be able to get well and truly pissed off and still handle yourself in an appropriate and productive way.
Anger is Authentic--and So Are Great Leaders
Great leaders are genuine and authentic. That's why we follow them.
Want to be a great leader? Stop trying to hide negative emotions. (Besides, the chances you can successfully hide how you're feeling are slim. You may be angry and think you're hiding it, but you're not. Your employees know.)
So don't pretend. Express the way you feel, but in a controlled and harnessed way.
"As we say to our clients," write Foster and Evans, "don't pretend. Be upset, but be intelligent while you're upset." That way you sustain your professional relationships as you work through challenges. That way you can be your authentic self--in a higher state of being.
Say you lose a major contract to a competitor you and your team didn't take seriously. Don't be afraid, in the months that follow, to bring your team back to that moment. If you're frustrated with your team's performance, don't be afraid to say, "Let's go back to that day. Remember what happened when those [jerks] took that contract. Remember how we all felt. Remember the letter they wrote us canceling our contract. Every time I read it I get mad."
Expressing those feelings will not only help you stay focused, it helps your team stay focused. It's a powerful reminder that sometimes business cannot not be business as usual.
Used correctly, anger can take you and your team to places you haven't been before.