Think about a work scenario in your past when the proverbial fit hit the shan. Perhaps an unforeseen circumstance that led to a massive layoff. Or a mistake that sent your biggest client packing for a competitor.
Or did he have a bad reaction, throw temper tantrums, point fingers at other people, and further act on impulse with more bad choices that sent morale and productivity spiraling?
We have a leadership term for the latter scenario. In emotional intelligence studies, it's called self-management, or lack thereof, in this case.
I prefer a more generic term that is equally effective for further discussion: Self-control.
Why Self-Control Matters for Leaders
Ancient wisdom says that "a person without self-control is like a house with its doors and windows knocked out." You become defenseless and open yourself up to harm. In a business sense, harm here equals losing influence, respect and trust from those you lead.
Why is this the case? Lets back up a bit.
In emotional intelligence, self-control (or "self-management") is a personal competence developed in every good leader. The question behind self-control is: Can I manage my emotions and behavior to a positive outcome?
Internationally known psychologist and best-selling author, Daniel Goleman, says this about leaders with self-control:
"Reasonable people--the ones who maintain control over their emotions--are the people who can sustain safe, fair environments. In these settings, drama is very low and productivity is very high. Top performers flock to these organizations and are not apt to leave them."
If leaders have no capacity for self-control, the flip side is not good. How do you think it impacts an organization's performance? A company's bottom line? Relationships? Stress?
What a Lack of Self-Control Will Do
One of the major obstacles stemming from a lack of self-control is unfiltered anger. Who will ever forget last year's unfortunate and very publicized incident involving the CEO of Restoration Hardware Holdings Inc., who went off on his whole company with a flaming internal memo written mostly with the caps lock on.
Instead of displaying leadership during a decline in customer service that led to an increase in canceled orders, he reacted adversely and spared no one with threats of termination.
While I wasn't in the building and have not interviewed people at Restoration, I'll make a small wager with anyone that employees were disengaged and unhappy, which may have affected their performance. Any takers?
Anger is one powerful, and quite normal, human emotion. But it needs to be expressed in a healthy way. There's a place and time for appropriate anger, and we all have to learn how to manage it, or it will manage us. Self-control takes care of that.
How to Improve Self-Control
Self-control, along with mindfulness, are skills we teach and coach leaders so they have the capacity to be present, calm and focused during times of high stress. It's a necessary virtue with long term payoff.
Here are 5 ways a leader can improve self-control:
1. Identify your feelings.
Is there a strong emotion behind missing a deadline, hesitation about a meeting, or an intuitive sense that the environment you are working in may not be the right fit for you? The starting point is always to exercise self-awareness before you act on your emotions.
2. Figure out what your triggers are.
If you lost self-control, it can be a learning moment. What triggered you to just lose it? It's likely a reaction to something much deeper, perhaps unresolved. Whatever is at the bottom of the pile needs to be taken care of first--that's the primary emotion causing the unwanted secondary like anger, fear, or guilt. So what's really bugging you?
3. Be aware of when it happens.
Does it happen during times of stress? Fear? Anxiety? Exhaustion? For me, my self-control is at its lowest when I'm tired after a long day of work. I get especially grumpy and irritable but I'm aware of it enough to resist any temptation to make a really bad choice.
4. Be intentional and take massive action.
Now that you know the real cause of your negative emotion, be intentional about breaking the cycle. Was your reaction appropriate to begin with? Was it directed at the right time, or to the right person? Maybe the lesson is to learn a more proactive response, or better decision-making. Perhaps it's to not act at all, but just "be" and listen more to other perspectives before pulling the trigger.
5. Change your mindset.
The power of choice, saying in your heart of hearts, "this is who I choose to be" rather than "this is who I am," will cause your paradigm to shift, leading to more self-control and less impulsiveness. But don't be fooled, a new mindset will take a lot of work, practice, and self-discipline until behaviors become habitual.
Bringing It Home
Self-control is crucial for leaders and managers at all levels because no employee wants to work for someone who is not in control of themselves and their emotions, especially during difficult times. Leading by fear, yelling, and bullying is an extinct custom that has no place in the current social economy which values relationships, collaboration, and authenticity.