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Leadership self-control: 3 ways to avoid losing your cool

4 min read


It’s tough to respect a leader who’s always losing his cool. Case in point: during college, I worked in a family-owned Italian restaurant whose proprietor had a fiery, larger-than-life personality. When he was frustrated, ‘Tony” was prone to emotional outbursts. One day, I received this upbraiding for not setting up the salad bar correctly: “You make me so mad, Jennifer, I wanna poke your eyes out!”

The eruption was so ludicrous that I had to fight from laughing. Tony was truly angry with me, but his continual tirades had begun to fall on deaf ears. Clearly, self-control was not Tony’s strong suit, and his behavior taught me this: “leadership by rant” is pretty darn ineffective.

A leader’s emotional self-control is like a car’s gas tank: some folks’ tanks are bigger, but eventually, all tanks run out of gas. Leaders who stay tuned into their “fuel level” are able to refill before damaging their work relationships. In his book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick,” psychologist Jeremy Dean puts it this way: “It’s crucial to respect the fact that self-control is a limited resource and you are likely to overestimate its strength. Recognizing when your levels of self-control are low means you can make specific plans for those times.”

As a leader, do you ever feel your self-control slipping? Here are three ways you can minimize this respect-damaging aspect of leadership:

Use your fuel gauge. Pay attention to when your emotional gas tank is full; reserve those times for particularly challenging mental work or conversations that require significant emotional self-control. Likewise, take note of when your tank is nearly depleted. Even if your reserves are low and you can’t put off a difficult task, it’s acceptable to negotiate time for a quick recharge: “Sam, we do need to talk about this. I’m just finishing up on this report. I’d like to take a quick break so I can switch gears and give you my full attention. How about if we meet in 10 minutes?”

Adjust fuel quality. What quality of gas do you need to put in your tank? Some days, all that’s needed to refuel is a quick break and you’re back on track. For especially challenging days, be sure to fuel up with something higher octane. For example, if you have a busy travel itinerary planned, be sure to eat as healthfully as you can. A diet of donuts and soda pop causes your blood sugar to plummet, increasing your irritability — sapping your ability to stay calm and focused.

Heed the warning light. Most cars have an indicator that lights when the vehicle has only a few miles of gas left. Are you aware of a similar indicator in your leadership life? What are the situations that trigger a less-than-positive response from you? For example, a manager that I know has a pet peeve about a particular phrase. She’s told me that when she hears people say, “it’s not our job to …” it angers hers and causes her to tune out the remainder of the message. “It’s not a rational reaction, and I’ve missed some important information by allowing myself to focus on that phrase rather than hear out the speaker,” she says.

This manager has learned to cope by mentally acknowledging that she’s heard a “trigger phrase.” She then takes a deep breath, focusing on the speaker’s entire message. When you learn to spot your self-control triggers, you’ll be better prepared to head outbursts off at the pass.

My boss Tony had emotional reserves the size of a sub-compact’s gas tank. Even if your “tank” holds much more fuel than Tony’s, you still need to recognize the factors that contribute to loss of emotional control. The occasional outburst shows you’re human; anything more than that and you risk losing the respect and trust of your team.

Career strategist Jennifer V. Miller is a former HR manager and corporate trainer who helps mid-career professionals chart the course for their next big “leap.” A self-described “professional opportunity cultivator,” Miller provides one-to-one and small group professional development coaching via her company SkillSource. She offers up tips for leading yourself and others at The People Equation.