Let’s talk about the role of your emotions in your leadership.
In my experience, this isn’t something we talk about much as leaders, and when we do, it seems like we often go to extremes: we either talk about trusting our emotions (“trust your instinct”, “trust your gut”, etc.) or trashing them (“what would Spock do?”). But I think there’s a healthier middle ground.
Let me be clear: emotions aren’t bad. The capacity to feel emotion is a gift. I believe all emotions, positive and negative, are intended to help us pay attention to things that need attention. If you’re feeling lonely, that might be an sign that you need to invest in some new relationships, or have a vulnerable conversation with people you’re already in relationships with. If you do something and it makes you feel happy and fulfilled, that might be a sign you’re starting to zero in on what God has created you for; you might be on the verge of finding your calling in life. Emotions are supposed to help us pay attention to things that need attention.
The problem is that, like everything other good thing, sin has twisted our emotions into something they were never intended to be. And very often, now, instead of drawing our attention to something that needs attention, our emotions just draw our attention back to us. And if we live at the mercy of our emotions – which are often under the influence of sin – we’re going to kept in a prison of self-preoccupation. I think this is why the Bible says:
The one who trusts his own heart is a fool… (Pro 28:26a).
That’s something that leaders can’t afford to let happen. Fortunately, the proverb continues:
…but the one who walks wisely will escape. (Pro 28:26b)
Emotions have the potential to keep us trapped in a prison of self-preoccupation, but there is a way to escape that potential prison.
And again, just to be very clear: emotions aren’t the problem. The problem is trusting our emotions.
So does that mean that we need to ignore our emotions or always assume they’re a trap? Should we pretend we don’t feel what we feel or always act opposite of what our emotions are pushing us to do? No. The alternative to trusting our emotions is testing them. When we feel something as leaders, before we act, we want to test our emotions and see if they’re drawing our attention to something that needs attention or just drawing our attention back to ourselves.
So how do we do that? Here are two questions I’ve found helpful:
1. Where is this coming from?
2. Where is this taking me?
One of the reasons we have to be careful about trusting our emotions is we’re not always clear on where they came from. Have you ever found yourself in a bad mood and realized it only after you had said or done some things you wish you hadn’t? And then you asked yourself, “Why did I react like that?”…which led to the realization that you were in a bad mood…which led to you asking, “Why am I in a bad mood?”…which led to the realization that it was something that had happened earlier in the day that had affected you emotionally without you being aware of it at the time?
That’s precisely why emotions can be such a powerful tool: they draw our attention to things our conscious mind has missed. And I believe when some people talk about “sitting in” or “sitting with” our emotions, this is at least partly what they’re getting at: acknowledging the emotion and tracing it back to it’s source, like walking alongside a creek until you find the spring it emerges from.
Unfortunately, the fact that we have to ask and answer the question “where is this coming from?” is also why we can’t just trust our emotions blindly. The fact is, what we feel isn’t always real or, more properly, what we feel isn’t always based on what’s real or reasonable.
Have you ever felt happy because something bad happened to someone you didn’t like? That is not a creek you want to be drinking from; it’s flowing from a poisoned spring!
I have often felt irritation over something I have no right to feel irritation over and I’ve learned that if I just “trust” my emotions, I’ll be at their mercy…and so will everyone I lead!
We have to follow emotions back to their source so we can decide if what we’re feeling is reasonable and useful. So what do we do? We ask, “Where is this coming from?”
The other useful question is, “Where is this taking me?” Even when an emotion is justified or reasonable, it is often a mistake to act out of that emotion. And listen, there’s a big difference between acting out of an emotion and acting because of an emotion. It might seem subtle, but it’s significant. Let me explain.
Acting out of an emotion is acting in a way that is driven by the emotion itself. If your kid does something that makes you angry and you speak to him harshly, you’re acting out of an emotion. If your kid does something that makes you angry and you think about it and decide what they did really needs to be addressed for their good and for the good of the family, and you do so calmly, in a way that corrects the behavior while not creating hurt, you’re acting because of an emotion. That’s what we want as leaders.
The simple question “Where is this emotion taking me?” is often all we need to make the shift from acting out of to acting because of our emotions. And that good old adage about counting to ten before you respond? That will help make the shift, too!
Sometimes, of course, we’ll find that even acting because of an emotion isn’t appropriate. For instance, if I’m irritated with an employee and I determine it’s because they challenged an idea I had, what I’ve discovered is my emotion (irritation) is coming from pride or insecurity and if I trust it and act on it, all I’m really doing is feeding my own self-preoccupation. The only thing I need to do because of the emotion rooted in self-preoccupation is to say to it, “I hear your voice, but you don’t get the final vote in how I act.”
Properly tested, your emotions can be an important tool as a leader. Often your unconscious mind picks up on things faster than your conscious one does and signals for your attention with an emotion. The emotion calls you to pay attention to something that needs your attention.
But remember: the only emotion that can be trusted is an emotion that’s been tested.