The Leader's Toolbox
William James, the father of modern psychology, proposed one of the first theories of emotion that attempted to relate the experience of emotion to physiological functions. He tried to describe the human experience of emotion:
“Conceive of yourself, if possible, suddenly stripped of all the emotion with which your world now inspires you, and try to imagine as it exists, purely by itself, without your favorable or unfavorable, hopeful or apprehensive comment. It will be almost impossible for you to realize such a condition of negativity and deadness. No one portion of the universe would then have importance beyond another; and the whole collection of its things and series of its events would be without significance, character, expression, perspective. Whatever of value, interest, or meaning our respective worlds may appear imbued with are thus pure gifts of the spectator's mind.”
All of our emotions are elicited by external circumstances. Unfortunately, we seem to recall strong, negative experiences better than positive or neutral ones. All of us can remember where we were, and what we were doing, on September 11, 2001, during the horrific terrorist attack on New York City. The important part of our limbic system is responsible for emotional expression is the amygdala, which takes in all kinds of stimuli – feeling, touch, taste, smell, sight – and integrates it into our nervous system, preparing our physiology for what we have to do next. Breaking the chain of negative implicit memories, and transitioning to a more positive outlook can cause a cascade of chemicals that help us perform better and break negative connections. We have to forget the “bad stuff” and leave it in the past to move forward. So, better performance isn’t about how “hot” or “cold” the system is, but whether you’re in a positive or negative emotional state.
Psychologically, there are other ways to distance yourself from a troublesome disposition towards events. Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, studies self-talk - the introspective conversations we have with ourselves about ourselves. Through his research, Kross has found that people who don't refer to themselves in the first person during self-talk have an easier time dealing with stressful situations. Basically, treating ourselves as though we're other people can change how we think, feel and behave. His researcher saw distinct trends emerge in different groups during self-talk. Those that spoke of themselves in the 3rd person gravitated toward more positive messages. When they addressed themselves by name or as "you," they built themselves up, like supportive friends do for one another before a nerve-wracking experience. Members of the first-person group, on the other hand, were harder on themselves and expressed more worry, shame, and doubt. "When people are feeling anxious or stressed, they can try talking to themselves internally using their own names," he said. "Our data shows that when you do that, it enhances the ability to read more rationally into situations, which improves people's ability to control their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under stress,” Kross concluded.
If you can get conscious control over your physiology and psychological well-being, you’ve grasped the most critical stages of leading. But, there’s still one last hurdle, and that’s answering the bigger questions about life – how do I focus my energies on those things that matter most? This is where a brutal truth rears its ugly head, and it’s one that most people struggle with. The fact is, you have almost no control over many of the things that happen in your life. In an attempt to force some degree of certainty in our lives and work, we micromanage, try to do everything ourselves, and attempt to force others to change their ways. If everything fits into our limited view of the world, then we may feel like we direct what’s going to happen and get some certainty about the future. Of course, we all know that this doesn’t work.
Even when people realize they can’t control everything they still don’t let go. They use worry as a proxy for their helplessness. They fret over the weather, their health, politicians, sports teams, co-workers, their family, or what the neighbors are doing. While the worrying keeps them occupied, and they waste countless time and boundless energy doing do, ultimately it doesn’t do any good. What’s worse, as we have now understood, they have set in motion a cascade of physiological and psychological trauma that makes it virtually impossible to be self-aware about their irrationality.
Here is where the training is critical. If you can get yourself to the mid-point, and begin to dust away the cobwebs in your internal systems, you can realize there are concrete steps you can take. First, determine what you can control. Even though you can’t prevent a storm from coming, you can prepare for it. You cannot control how your co-worker behaves, but you can determine what your response, or lack thereof, will be to it.
Second, focus on your influence. Even though you are raising your children and trying to teach them the “right” way to live, you cannot control everything they do. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help them in every way possible and set a good example, but ultimately, you have to set them free to make their own mistakes. The thing you can influence the most is your own behavior. You can set boundaries for yourself, share your opinions if asked, and control what you eat. However, trying to fix people that don’t want to be fixed, or offering advice where none is wanted, is a road to frustration and ineffectiveness. Set the example, and others will follow – pull, don’t push.
Ruthlessly monitor and guard your own thinking. Replaying conversations and imagining disasters over and over again is never helpful. Ask yourself if your thinking is productive. Are you obsessing over something or problem-solving? If you find yourself playing a broken record in your mind, immediately stop. Go do something else. If you can change your environment, activity, or company, it will help get your brain focused on something more productive.
Last, engage in all the healthy stress relievers you can. Whether it is a sport, meditation, healthy eating, or a good night’s sleep, you have to take care of yourself. If you find yourself coping with stress by binge eating, drinking too much, or gossiping about other people, you’re on the wrong track. These habits are self-destructive and have no place in a leader’s toolbox.