Leadership, Anger and Choice

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

— Isaac Asimov, author

Let’s move on to leadership and anger.
A few weeks ago, a senior executive gave great advice to a visiting group of managers-in-training. It came down to this:

Set high standards.
Hold people accountable.
You don’t have to be a jerk about it.

More needs to be said, even though some of the strength in his three-part coaching lies in its simplicity. So please bear with me as I do my best to complicate this.
Also: I’m a writer, teacher and sometime leader, not a psychologist; these are practical-level thoughts. If while reading this you get the feeling that some counseling might help you, look into getting that help. Your family doctor or the HR department at work are good places to start.

Too many leaders confuse anger with power.
Anger creates fear, stress, and near-paralysis on all three levels – individual, group and organization. When a leader tells you he or she “blew my stack” and that’s when things started getting done… well, sure. Kick something, and it moves.
And when it comes to rest, you may have to kick it again.
And again.
Being kicked is another matter.
Before you know it, fear and all the trade-offs of fundamentally aggressive leadership kick in too. Relationships weaken, creativity drops, morale worsens… and, depending on who’s involved and perhaps on what’s gone before, even worse outcomes, like “political” sabotage, can arrive too.
Risk-taking? Forget it.
Anger isn’t power. It has some power. But there’s more to it.
Kick something, it moves. Which means, first, that once you undertake this dubious strategy, you may need to do an awful lot of kicking – ushering in all those trade-offs and, I am sure, others I’ve left out.
More enlightened power is earned, or at least developed. Elements like knowledge, experience, skills, relationships, achievements and many others contribute to the ability to get things done.
You don’t have to be a jerk about it, whatever it is. If you let anger loose, you’re simply losing emotional control.
That’s not leadership. That’s emotion.
We move now to an inspiring passage where, as one who has done some leading in business and sports and family life, I explain how I’ve avoided anger at all times, no matter what.
I only wish I could!
Words I chose too often amid anger are words I would gladly recall.
When I teach conflict management and mention those regrets, the nods in the room are pretty much universal – in agreement, perhaps, and in folks’ remembering their own histories.
So what’s the alternative? Robot leaders? Maybe clone Mr. Spock, the emotion-free alien from the old “Star Trek” series?
While these are, one more time, just the comments of a writer-teacher, and while the counseling community can help you explore this in far more depth and with far more skill if you feel the need, here are some steps you might try:
• Be honest with yourself. Take stock. Are you letting go emotionally — but calling it necessary? Or seeing it as leadership?
• Be direct. There is remarkable power, as a mentor put it years ago, in asking for what you want. Few forms of powerlessness are unhappier than the one that goes, repeatedly, “I can’t even ask.”
• Think over the vast difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. Assertiveness is being clear, direct, earnest, even passionate — about what you need or expect. In leadership it’s a big part of working with and through others. Aggressiveness means getting what you want at all costs; going for a win-lose.

Another thoughtful friend spent years reporting to a strong, charismatic senior leader who regularly exploded with anger, ignored boundaries, even indulged in paternalism so often that his good qualities could be offset. He had some fine qualities – and, often, good intentions; I knew him a little.
But as a leader….
My friend succeeded that senior leader, and a year or so later we were chatting about his experience as, now, a senior executive. He let me know that, uncharacteristically – he’s a low-key, friendly guy — he had blown up at his staff, much as his predecessor so often did.
He seemed to consider it necessary, or at least unavoidable.
He’s a good enough colleague and friend to deserve the truth. I described his response as anger, and briefly discussed trade-offs those explosions can bring – as they so often did with the leader he succeeded.
He was polite enough to listen; I can’t yet say whether he found those thoughts helpful.
Reflecting on it later, because this is a bright, talented leader whom I admire, I wondered whether the reason some of his direct reports, and others, were sometimes saying one thing to him about their work but doing another, or not letting him know when tough questions came up, etc.… might be simple. His company’s history – and now even his own anger at times – had people running for cover instead of stepping forward with great, risky but creative ideas.
Doing so out of habit more than choice sometimes, but still running.

Choosing to make a difference, to serve your people and your goals vs. giving in to angry impulses… it’s not easy. Perhaps it’s just part of being human – in this culture at least.
Regardless, you have a choice. The three-part advice at the top of this piece makes it plain: Set high standards, hold people accountable, and you don’t, absolutely, have to be a jerk about it.
Be clear, direct and open. Listen. Make expectations known, and follow up. Work with people, not at them. Praise good work. Build strong workplace relationships rooted in trust.
Trust is so much more easily broken than built.
One of the easiest ways to prove that, and one of the most needless given the alternatives, is with a few out-of-control angry words. Violence may indeed be the last refuge of the incompetent.
For some, it’s the first.
Give it some thought? And when you’re ready, I hope you will explore these ideas with someone you trust — and with the people who answer to you. Great leaders listen, learn, change and grow.
You could say that’s the first refuge of the competent.

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9 comments
  1. Teresa Himebaugh said:

    Words can build up or Words can tear down. Often those said in anger, even when said in truth, tear down. It is important to remember that body language and words have to match. Body language will speak the loudest. We react to the anger internally and don’t even realize the scope to which we react. Part of leadership is realizing the impact your words and actions have on others.
    Thanks, Cliff!

  2. chebard said:

    Well said, Teresa. We get so used to words in a culture as verbal (?) as ours that, sometimes, we forget their power. I know your coaching expertise and teaching bears that out, too, in a lot of helpful ways.
    Thanks!

  3. AnnieO said:

    A learned response, no doubt – at least for some (most?) of us!

    • chebard said:

      Amen, AnnieO… it can take a lot of work, especially if the folks around us and/or the culture seem to actually support and even believe in anger as a “tool.” But in my experience, it’s just anger. Thanks for commenting, too.

  4. Lee Baumgarten said:

    Excellent Cliff, I would like to copy this and build a “facilitator” workshop around it. Interested?

    • chebard said:

      Thanks, Lee, and sure; sounds like an interesting combination of ideas. Say when?

  5. Mike R said:

    Very good points Cliff!! For me, the key to effective leadership is always knowing that it is a privilege to lead…not a right…as soon as you get comfortable, it becomes very easy to forget this and start taking short cuts and over using the directive part of the job description…it is very easy to do based upon personal experience…the best way to avoid this frustration and anger trap is to look in the mirror often and ask “what else can I do”? to enable success for those folks we get the privilege to lead

    • chebard said:

      I think so too, Mike. As you imply, directive leadership has a place — one easily overused. I really like your “what else can I do?’ thought, too. We got into that discussion a bit in the first post, reviewing differences between “have” and “be,” as in, “what can I get?” vs. “what can I give?” As you aptly say, it’s a privilege to serve others as a leader, quite the opposite of using the role as mainly a stepping-stone to more of what “I” want. Some say this approach to leadership is soft. In my experience — yours too, sounds like — what I’ll call servant leadership takes far more skill, and can yield far better results. Thanks for commenting!

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