Over the past several months – years even – we’ve all witnessed, watched on television, or read in the news or online about child-like spats between those who we are hoping are our strong, confident, stable, trustworthy leaders. What we are seeing from our leaders reminds us of two children fighting over toys in the sandbox. Where are the mature leaders? Where are the ones who promote honesty, selflessness, humility, and will lead without self-justification?
Richard Davis, in his article We Need More Mature Leaders, makes the following observation. He wrote this article ten years ago! It is just as true – yet more troubling – today. Now more than ever we need more mature leaders:
“Arrogance, pouting, tantrums, personal attacks, and betrayal of trust seem to be the order of the day. Situations at Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo!, and News Corp demonstrate the kind of sandbox leadership that is all too prevalent right now. The timing could not be worse. The nation’s current problems, as vast and overwhelming as they are, appear secondary to the whims of spoiled children, unwilling to play well together. At a time when we need solid, grounded leadership more than ever, we seem to be in short supply of adults who act like, well…like adults.”
Sadly, the back-and-forth tirades that we witness between our political figures are very similar to those I’ve witnessed by corporate leaders in board and conference rooms. Some of the most creative and promising – even profitable – companies out there are being led by folks who act like children. I’ve participated in manysignificant meetings with smart, innovative, and intelligent people. My hope has always been that together we can make great decisions for the business to nurture health and create new growth opportunities. Yet, when one person starts shouting, defending themselves, and attacking others in the room, the collaboration shuts down, creativity is lost, and all the open and honest communication we were having comes to a screeching halt.
I was on the phone with a client who was on a rant about one of his key people. As he was whining and complaining about them, I literally thought, “He sounds just like a three-year-old having a temper tantrum!” I had to tell him three times (yelling at him the third time) that if he didn’t stop, I would hang up. Why did he sound like a three-year-old? Because he was operating out of his emotional immaturity. Somewhere along the way, even though he had physically aged non-stop, something in the development of his emotional maturity halted and he now acts like an infant.
Can’t we all be more mature leaders? Yes, we can!
The holes in our emotional maturity are created when we experience some distress and don’t process the emotional pain in a healthy way. Oftentimes the hole is connected to some emotion that we don’t want to feel – we would consider it unpleasant. In fact, universally there are six unpleasant emotions that we often try to avoid feeling: shame, anger, disgust, sadness, fear (afraid), and hopeless despair (S.A.D.S.A.D.). As infants, if we don’t learn how to process these unpleasant emotions in a healthy way, we figure out a way to cope with them, avoid them, or stuff them. This becomes a hole in our emotional maturity and the new standard operating procedure for our brain. It becomes the normal path the brain follows to “deal” with that pain – over and over, again and again.
As grown-ups, we now have a way of dealing with that unpleasant emotion that can be triggered by unrelated circumstances. A seemingly innocuous comment by a colleague during a meeting, for example, can trigger a feeling of fear that sends your brain down the same pathway. Rather than responding maturely, you react with anger. Rather than feeling the emotion, you avoid it by lashing out and attacking your co-worker – even friend. The brain stops being relational and is following the same, non-relational method of dealing with that emotion: lashing back at your “enemy.” To learn more about enemy mode, see: Logical or Relational: The Anatomy of an Ideal Team.
Drs. Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder in their book, Rare Leadership in the Workplace – 4 Uncommon Habits that Improve Focus, Engagement, and Productivity, tell us that we can all do better. We can nurture our own maturity and become better and more mature leaders – the quality that the greatest leaders possess. In turn, our maturity helps our teams become more mature, which increases collaboration, appreciation, creativity, and innovation. As you grow more mature, your people become more engaged and productive.
The foundation of emotional maturity is engaging both sides of the brain so that it is working optimally as it was created to do: both relational and logical. Most of us lack the skills to keep our relational “circuits” working when we experience those unpleasant emotions. Dr. Warner and Dr. Wilder have compiled decades of research and experience into four simple habits that form the R.A.R.E. leadership acronym:
- Remain relational
- Act like yourself
- Return to joy
- Endure hardship well.
Read more about these habits in the series available here: RARE Leadership, part 1 – Leadership vs Management. And let’s talk so I can help you with a plan to grow your emotional maturity.
 Richard Davis, “We Need More Mature Leaders,” Harvard Business Review, October 2011, https://hbr.org/2011/10/we-need-more-mature-leaders,