The Power to Choose

Would you consider going through your entire business day tilted? Can you imagine the amount of energy it would take just to function if you spent your day canted 5 degrees in any direction? Not only would you compromise your effectiveness and wear yourself out, you would make everyone around you crazy as they tried to figure out how to engage with you.

No one would do that, right? Yet we often show up for work as emotionally out of balance as if we were leaning. Some of the most interesting research on leadership capacities identifies the critical importance of emotional balance, or what some call remaining “centered.”

Strong core muscles allow athletes to engage with outside forces while keeping themselves physically stable. Effective leaders understand that they need an effective emotional core as well. It is this core that helps a leader deal effectively with a challenge, rather than just making a habitual response. And like that physical core, a strong emotional center is not about pretending that outside forces do not exist. Instead, it provides more options about how to deal with them directly.

For example, an executive who micromanages a project team will do so for one of two reasons. Either the team actually needs close supervision to get work done, or the executive simply feels too anxious to delegate accountability and let the team run with it. The trick for most leaders is in knowing the difference. The leader who is emotionally centered can choose. But the leader who is so swept by his own emotions cannot make a choice of responses. That leader responds not to the needs of the situation, but to his own needs – without making a choice, often without even knowing it. For a good example of this, review my article, “Leading a Company Takes Courage” (Arkansas Business, Sept. 25, 2006). When the personal need for congeniality trumps the company’s need for honest feedback, the leader is not centered.

Daniel Goleman, Harvard Business School’s resident headshrinker, has written extensively on emotional and social intelligence – which in practical application is about being centered. Although it may not seem like a subject for a business publication, an enormous amount of recent research shows the relationship between a well-grounded leader and business performance. So the question becomes, “How does a leader build a strong core emotional center?” The answer is to be found in another key leadership domain, that of spirituality. Now there is an odd word for a business publication!

The spiritual domain has to do with the ability to inspire others and to be inspired. It is about creating a clear and compelling vision. In short, one builds a strong emotional center by being attached to something larger, something for which we are willing to be somewhat emotionally uncomfortable.

Suppose one of your direct reports comes to you with a problem that you know from experience how to solve. The easy thing is to tell him, or to criticize him for not coming up with a solution. But if your bigger vision is helping this person rise to the next level, you are more likely to put away your desire for an immediate result and coach your employee, allowing him to learn both the answer and how to find it for himself next time.

Sometimes, of course, the direct route is the right one. What a strong center will do is allow you to choose rather than having a less resilient emotional core decide for you without your even noticing it. And while all this is pretty messy, what else does a leader do but put her own needs in service to the organization she leads?

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, January 14, 2008.