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Leadership and Anger - Part #1

With all of the stress and pressure that leaders are feeling today in our season of multiplied crisis, it is easy for a leader to become angry or at least seem to be angry by those they are leading. This can turn into a whole new crisis of its own. Let’s take a look at anger and some things that may help us use understandable emotions better. We’ll look this week and next, seeing what to be aware of that can hurt us and our teams and what can help us.

Everybody experiences anger. Most anger is healthy. It is a normal stage in grieving well, it can be caused by ordinary stress caused by lack of sleep or working too hard. It might be the result of pent-up frustration, feeling a loss of control, or it can easily come from feeling betrayed.

Anger can be a flash in the pan and easily gone, OR it can gradually become a deep part of who you are if you let it go too long. You probably know someone who only seems to be happy when they are mad, and then you know someone else who might be seething inside, but they cover it all with a smile and sweetness.

But there is no eliminating anger. You have to learn to deal with it or it will explode when you least expect it. There is no eliminating anger. Anger is deeply personal, but it can very quickly become public and extremely destructive. A critical competency of leadership is how you deal with anger. Specifically, how you manage your own anger and how you respond to the anger of others. Anger is such a powerful emotion—it can drive people to cooperate for great purposes, or it can completely destroy the ability to think rationally. Managing the emotion of anger is vital to your communication skills as a leader to direct people in helpful ways.

George W. Bush, as president during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, found the ability to control his emotions when he was told about the attacks while reading a story to children. His ability to empathize with the nation and the families who had lost loved ones made him able to lead the nation. When a man from the crowd at Ground Zero called to him in the midst of the debris, “I can’t hear you!,” Bush replied, “But I hear you!” The whole nation felt understood and cared for. As Maya Angelou noted: “People will never forget how you made them feel.”

Dealing with your own emotions usually requires practice. Effective leaders work at it and learn to temper their emotions, specifically anger, when they need to be rational and a source of security, and they know how to elevate and express appropriate emotions, even anger, when it will inspire others.

Powerful leaders influence the emotions of others. They can calm and soothe, they can inspire hopes and dreams, they can ignite purposeful anger, and they can lead people to accomplish what matters most.

A monkey wrench in the toolbelt of leaders can be anger. Anger makes us unpredictable because it disables our ability to think rationally. Anger impacts the internal harness of self-control. It eats at you and eventually destroys the filters and controls you normally depend upon.

Groucho Marx observed: “If you speak when angry you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” Anger debilitates. Adrenaline is on overload, you don’t think clearly, and you fail to see or appreciate the likely consequences and outcomes you would see with great clarity if you were not so angry; that would be obvious if you were in a more resourceful mental state.

Anger is a natural human emotion. Whether anger is used productively or destructively is most often a matter of choice. As with any choice, the more you understand the situation and the possible consequences of your actions, the better the chance you will act most appropriately.

Anger is contagious and easily fanned into a great flame. The lowered thinking ability of angry people makes them easy to manipulate. This is how a peaceful protest can quickly turn into a deadly riot. They are often controlled by angry people, fanning the flames of anger to benefit their cause. People can be led by inspiration or manipulation, and anger is the easiest way to get them moving.

A highly competent leader, acting with a noble purpose, can channel his or her own anger into productive and positive things. Then they can use their own perspective to lead the team into better choices and life-giving solutions in hard times.

The place to start is with listening, and then responding directly with control and patience. We all have a right to be angry. Nothing is perfect, and leaders and teams who don’t express their thoughts end up doing a great disservice to everyone because they eventually explode or they respond with passive-aggressive behaviors, and then the inauthenticity is as morally destructive as a big blow-up.

Everyone makes mistakes, and opportunities for anger are plentiful. Compassionate, controlled listening will often begin a solution to the problem. But great leaders don’t fly off the handle and meet problems with unprocessed anger.

More about that and how to do it next time.

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