The Atlas

Temper, temper

Something many people find surprising when they meet the 40+ year old me is something that those who knew me in my 20's often still tease me about: I used to have a very short fuse and volatile temper.  

In my late-20's I began recognizing that my lack of emotional regulation was starting to become a real roadblock to my career, and I dug in to work on it. For nearly a decade, I put such focus on changing my own patterns of behavior that when I look back at the early part of my career, I don't recognize myself at all.

One of the stranger side-effects of the several lifetimes of distance I've put between the current version of me and that youthful one is that I currently find myself constantly surprised when I see people who respond the same way I used to.

My old dog, Zeka, used to rush up to every person she ever met to greet them. Because she was ridiculously cute and extremely sociable, she was almost always granted a loving hello from friends and strangers alike. Yet, on occasion, she would encounter someone who was simply not a dog person (perish the thought!) and they would just ignore her. I will never forget the utterly perplexed look on her face. She didn't appear hurt or disappointed, just confused. What do you mean you don't find me irresistible? How is that even possible?

This is much the reaction I have now when I see people have dramatic emotional reactions to most things. My first thought is almost always, How does that help?

Of course, this isn't to say that I don't have any triggers left anymore. That's not true at all, but in going through this work, I realized a few very important things:

  • Being emotionally volatile makes people reluctant to trust you with potentially upsetting information. As a leader this is dangerous, because you need people to be honest, but if they fear how you are going to react, many won't.
  • A critical aspect of executive presence is remaining calm under pressure. This is a major source of trust building with your staff. It makes people trust your ability to lead. Appearing unpredictable or volatile undermines other people's confidence in your abilities.
  • I only have so much energy. Allowing myself to explode depleted so much, it left me energetically bankrupt for the other things I needed to get done. If for no other reason, I needed to do a better job of energetic budgeting so I didn't short-change myself when I needed it.
  • Once I began looking at the decisions I was making when I was worked up, I realized something alarming: I made dumb choices that became embarrassing once I calmed down.
  • As I got in front of my knee-jerk habits to respond emotionally, I started seeing the real triggers that genuinely upset me. And once those were clear, I could more clearly identify circumstances that I did feel were truly worth allowing myself to get worked up over, versus which ones were just white noise.

Of course, there is always a great value to harnessing passion. And sometimes passion manifests itself in messy ways -- not all of which you may necessarily want to quash.

But I think the question I currently ask, How does this help?, is worth asking over and over again. If it does, great. If it doesn't, then maybe it's worth looking at alternatives.

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