Babies are good at getting what they want and need. When they cry, someone  comes and figures out whether they’re hungry, lonely or need a diaper change. When they smile or laugh, they get admiring coos from the people watching them.

Babies get away with expressing their unfiltered emotions, but try the same thing as an adult and it doesn’t work very well.

In fact, using emotion in the wrong way at the wrong time can backfire, especially if you want to be seen as a leader.

But just because you’re expected to use your words and not allow emotional outbursts to rule the day, it doesn’t mean you don’t still feel those emotions. What it does mean is that it’s in your best interest to learn what to do instead so you can be at your best when it really counts.

That’s why it’s important to be able to self-manage in the moment if you want to be a great leader.

In my experience, there are three situations where it’s crucial for you, as a leader, to be able to manage yourself so you can be at your best.

  1. When emotions kick in
  2. When you’ve been your worst self
  3. When you didn’t get what you wanted

Let’s start with the first situation.

Be especially vigilant when emotions kick in

This applies to both your emotions and the emotions of the people around you.

Situations that get emotional are like a dry forest where the smallest spark can ignite a wildfire. Similarly, when emotions kick in at work, things can easily escalate and get out of control.

When it’s others who are getting emotional, it’s key to keep a cool head and not get dragged in. Emotions are contagious, so you really need to be vigilant in these situations and not let your own “buttons” get pressed.

Like the meeting where a colleague goes on a rant and you’re listening calmly until that colleague says something negative about you and your team. This triggers you jump in to defend your honor. Then you both say things you regret later.

When you’re the one who’s getting emotional, it’s even more important to manage yourself. This starts with being in touch with your feelings and emotions at work. Even though we’re told to not be emotional and although you might try to channel your inner Dr. Spock, you’re still human.

For example, while I spent most of my career living from my neck up, it didn’t mean I had no emotions. Because I didn't acknowledge my emotions along the way, they would flare up bigger and stronger at the worst moments.

Like the time I lashed out at a team member. I was on a roll and couldn’t stop myself from going on and on about a seemingly small mistake.

The first time I noticed she had put the same monthly expense into two different categories, I was annoyed. Couldn’t she do even this simple thing right? But then I got busy and didn’t say anything.

The second time, I got annoyed again but she was on vacation and it felt “too late” to it bring up when she got back. At the end of the quarter, the mis-categorizations made it impossible to look at trends and I really got upset. Enough was enough and I asked for a meeting to talk about it.

By the time we had our “discussion”, my pent-up emotion came bursting out and it wasn’t pretty. Of course, my team member had no idea that this had been going on and was shocked to see me transformed from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in seconds.

This was not my finest moment and certainly not how I wanted to be seen as a leader.

Which brings us to the second situation.

Find a way to be your best self just after you’ve been your worst self

You’re human and sometimes you’re going to “lose it” and trigger a wildfire. But when the heat of the moment is over, what matters is that you make it right.

In fact, these are golden opportunities to strengthen relationships if handled well. Just as forest fires trigger pinecones to release seeds that regenerate the forest, conflicts are also an opportunity to repair if not strengthen your relationships. It all depends on how you handle yourself in the aftermath. Done well, this can set you up as a better leader.

So back to my embarrassing example, I finally calmed down enough to notice that my team member looked upset. That was never my intention – I just wanted her to pay attention to these details so I wouldn’t have to.

I took a couple of deep breaths, collected myself and apologized. And we talked about what led me to “lose it” like that. It became a positive conversation where we both had the chance to talk about what we could each do to improve the situation. This included giving each other permission to ask questions and give “real time” feedback.

From the conflict came a better relationship. But only because I circled back to make it right. And you can do this after the fact if you don’t realize it until later. What matters is that you go back and correct the situation.

This brings us to the third situation.

Beware of your behavior when you don’t get what you want

This is the time when it’s natural for emotions to come out. Especially if you tend to take things personally (who doesn’t?). It’s upsetting to be told you didn’t get that promotion or can’t have that raise.

But it’s situations like these when you’re most on display. And the bigger the disappointment, the more people are looking for your reaction. Having “all eyes on you” is what makes it such an important opportunity.

Like the time our division head was publicly demoted. When the memo came out announcing that half of Bob’s responsibilities would be stripped from him, we all thought he would quit from the humiliation. Indeed, we didn’t see him around for two weeks.

But the following Monday he was back. There was a new spring in his step as he strode across the trading floor, and he’d grown a cool new beard during his time away.

We were surprised and impressed to see him get right back to work, more positive than ever. He had taken time to reflect, heal and refresh. And now he was “back in the arena”, head held high and ready to do his job.

Since then, he’s been my role model for handling disappointments. And many years later, he became the President of the company.

But what if you can’t self-manage in the moment?

You’re human, so don’t expect to get it right every time. All you can do is to do your best with what you have in the moment.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes and then take the time to reflect and extract the lessons. That gives you the opportunity to either make it right (see #2 above) or figure out how you’ll do better next time.

Just don’t get down on yourself for messing up

Especially when you’ve made a mistake or had a setback as a leader. That only compounds the emotion of the situation for you and extends the period of time you focus on your mistake unproductively.

Remember that no one is perfect – not even you! – and treat yourself with love and grace so you can extract the lessons and move forward.

To be the kind of leader you want to be, learning to self-manage is an essential skill

While it’s impossible to manage your emotions successfully 100% of the time, focus on doing so in these three key situations and you’ll be ahead of the game.

  1. When emotions kick in – stay in touch with your own feelings and be especially vigilant about what might escalate the situation
  2. When you’ve been your worst self – find a way to make it right, even if some time has passed
  3. When you didn’t get what you wanted – take the time to reflect, heal and refresh so you can show up as the leader you want to be

What kind of leader do you want to be?

There’s no one right way to be a great leader because we’re all different and your leadership has to be authentic to you.

But whatever your way is, strive to be the very best version you can be.

So which of these situations do you most need to watch out for in order to be the leader you want to be?

Leave a comment and let me know.

And be sure to join us for Career Mastery™ Kickstart Summit 2021 where you’ll discover more tips and advice for how you can be at your best as a leader and enjoy greater success in your career.

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