Several years ago, an incident occurred where I got really mad. It was past bedtime for my kids. I was very tired after a long day at work. I had dealt with students and their issues all day at school, I had attended a few parent meetings that went poorly, and all I wanted was for the day to end peacefully.
Most of my kids had decided to go to bed without any problem. Ande, my third child, didn't. Despite being told to go to bed several times, she continued to find excuses to wander around the house: packing her bag for the next day, finishing up some homework, and asking her parents question after question after question. I could feel my blood start to boil.
Each time she left her room, every time I saw her walking around, I got angrier and angrier. As I got more upset, my verbal demands to go to bed got louder and firmer. I was getting to a breaking point. Finally, after what felt like the seventeenth question, I commanded, "Ande, that's it. Go to bed. No more coming out of your room, no more questions, nothing—get in your room right now and go to bed."
Being willing to take my frustration head-on, she replied "But, Daaaad, I haven't brushed my teeth yet!"
"I don't care, get to bed now!"
"Fine, then it will be your fault when I get a bunch of cavities and you have to pay all your money to the dentist!"
Without words, I went into her bathroom, grabbed her toothbrush, came face-to-face with her, snapped that toothbrush right in half, and said, "Go to bed."
Terrified, she went to bed … and I couldn't sleep because I let my emotions get the best of me. Not the proudest parenting moment of my life!
Every time you get upset at something, ask yourself if you were to die tomorrow, was it worth wasting your time being angry? — Robert Tew
Here's the deal. As a leader, there are going to be a lot of things that are going to upset you. Presses will break down. Employees won't show up for work. The supply chain will be backed up. Budgets won't be met. Coworkers will disappoint. Sales will be down. Client promises will be broken. Loved teammates will resign. Goals will be missed. Drama will happen. In short, life won't go as planned.
You probably cause some of these things (like me yelling at my daughter) and others, you have absolutely no control over. My friends at Top 20 Training call events that disappoint us "hits." These are the moments in life that continue to hit us and try to knock us down. Sometimes you can see them coming from a mile away and others blindside us.
The trick with hits is that we all have them. The other trick with hits is that we cannot escape them . . . ever. It's like being at the beach and getting pooped on by a seagull. We can curse and scream and kick, but eventually, everybody gets pooped on. This time it was just your turn.
REACT DON'T RESPOND
Uncommon leaders fully recognize that hits are simply a part of life and therefore, they choose to respond instead of reacting to hits. What's the difference between reacting and responding you ask? Good question. Allow me to answer.
A reaction is an almost involuntary, knee-jerk action to something that occurs. It is often full of emotion and you act without any sort of thinking. It's following your most primal instincts for survival of fight or flight. Reactions are great when you encounter a bear while hiking in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (a favorite destination for Minnesotans). But, for most other circumstances in life, reactions are not great. Snapping my daughter's toothbrush is a perfect example of a non-thinking, emotional reaction.
Some reactions to hits include:
A response is different from a reaction because it is purposeful. Responses occur when you allow a little time between the catalyst (the thing that occurred) and your action.
Victor Frankl explained it best in his book Man's Search for Happiness. After surviving three years in Nazi concentration camps, he shared "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." The keyword in his explanation is "choose".
A RESPONSE IS A CHOICE, A RECTION IS AN IMPULSE
Let's think about it this way: A daughter recently returned from her first semester in college. She and her dad were discussing her experiences while in the kitchen. The dad listened closely as the daughter began her barrage of complaints and concerns. She didn't like her roommate at all, her professors seemed stiff and uncaring. She was struggling to keep up with her studies and work. Speaking of work, she was sure that three coworkers were out to get her. Her dating life was almost non-existent and she was running out of money.
Her father continued to listen to complaint after complaint. While doing so, he got out three pots, filled them with water, and placed them on the stove. In one pot he put a carrot, in another an egg, and in the third, he placed some coffee beans. As she continued to share her drama, the water got hotter and hotter and began to boil. After several more minutes, his daughter stopped and asked him what he was doing.
"Well," he said, "I'm using these pots to teach you a very important lesson."
Pulling out the carrot from the first pot, he asked his daughter to hold it. Her dad asked, "What do you notice?"
While quite hot to hold, she could easily tell that the boiling water had turned this hard carrot into something soft and squishy.
"Yes," her father replied.
Now he turned to the second pot and pulled out the egg. Again, he let her hold it and asked, "What do you notice?"
She correctly responded that the hot water had turned this liquid egg into a solid. It had become hard.
Finally, he dipped a cup into the third pot, asked her to take a drink, and asked, "What do you notice?”
She smiled as she tasted a nice coffee.
"You see, daughter, life is full of challenges and trials. If you are not careful, these will make you soft and squishy (pointing to the carrot) or solid and hard (pointing to the egg). I look at the trials of life and know that I've got a choice. I can react like the carrot and egg or I can choose to respond by making the best of it like the coffee beans."
What are you? Do you let the hits of life turn you soft like the carrot or hard like the egg or do you recognize that you’ve got a choice to make the environment around you better, like the coffee bean?
MATURITY MEANS HAVING CONTROL OVER YOUR EMOTIONS
It means that you stop, think things through, and then choose how you are going to respond. I believe that this is one of the most fundamental leadership skills of them all.
For most of you and for most hits, stopping and pausing will allow you to tame your temper, calm your emotions, and think rationally about the situation before you respond. The time needed may be just a few seconds (counting to ten really does help) or it may require you to leave the situation and tell your people that you’ll respond after you’ve had a moment to reflect. In short, when a hit (H) happens, great leaders pause (P), and then intentionally respond (R). Hit, pause, respond, or HPR.
Following this pattern allows you to take responsibility for your choices. It gives you control over your own weather and it allows you to stay true to your values and beliefs. When your employees notice that very upsetting things happen and you can intentionally control your response, they will have more respect for you. They'll feel more care, they will know it is safe to make mistakes, and there won't be any emotional mess to clean up after. This is basic Leadership 101.
INTENTIONALLY GET MAD
However, I caution you. Don’t allow yourself to get to the point of never reacting. This is a terrible mistake that I made while working as an assistant principal. I was taught to be calm in emotionally-charged situations by my parents. So, when fights occurred, drugs were found, or teachers didn't meet important deadlines, I paused, kept my cool, and carried on. For months, I was proud of myself. I could take almost any situation—even those where a student was upset and calling me the most awful names—and not show any anger. Gosh, I thought I was so good.
But then I got some feedback. My principal, with whom I had a very transparent relationship, told me that my responses weren’t working. I was being seen as someone who was soft. Since I never got emotionally charged, people saw me as unpassionate, uncaring, and indifferent. Teachers and students felt like they could do anything and they wouldn't have to worry because "Mr. Hunt wouldn't get upset." Hum, this whole maturity thing backfired!
If I didn’t care about you, I wouldn’t get so mad at the things you do. — Drake
So, lest you think that this whole blog is all about you never showing emotion, you're wrong. The intent of my writing here is to always be in control of your emotions, but that doesn't mean you have to stifle every emotion. It might mean having the courage to show emotion.
Uncommon leaders recognize that there are moments when strong emotion should be expressed, times when people expect to see you get upset, and situations that require you to show passion. The difference here is that you choose to express emotion.
While serving a church mission in Novosibirsk, Siberia, my mission president displayed this choice perfectly. As missionaries, there were a lot of rules and one of those was to never talk to the press without prior permission. Midday on a Tuesday, my companion and I were knocking on the apartment door of a family we had an appointment with. The mother opened the door, told us she would not be meeting with us, and closed the door. To our surprise, we were immediately encircled by bright lights.
Right behind our backs, a cameraman and a reporter were standing, red recording light blinking and all. Feeling trapped, we hesitantly answered what seemed like reasonable questions from the reporter. After several minutes, he concluded and we went on our separate ways.
A few hours later, a news "special" hit every TV set in this two-million-person city. In the special, we were framed to be representatives of a cult who were out to steal the children of families. Absurd, I know, but still, this caught the attention of our mission president.
Get mad, then get over it. — Colin Powell
He instantly called us and gave us one heck of a lashing. His words were chosen carefully and his message was clear. He was incredibly disappointed in us and was very worried about what this would do to the good name of the church. After drilling into us for fifteen minutes, he concluded by expressing how much he cared about us and our mission.
Although I felt like dirt when we hung up, I knew two things—how passionate he was about the mission work and how much he cared for my companion and me. Had he called and said something like, "Oh, that's too bad you were on the news. Are you all okay? It's a bummer what has happened, but it probably wasn't your fault," we wouldn't have gotten the message and probably would have done another interview. However, his controlled response burned into us the importance of this particular mission rule.
What are you passionate about? What values or beliefs do you and your organization have about which you should intentionally get mad?
Occasionally, your people need to see you upset. They need to recognize that you have passion. They want to see that you are a human being with normal human feelings. And you can show them all of this when you intentionally get mad.
When you decide to do so, please be very careful. There is a fine line between intentional anger and reactive anger. Intentional anger happens when you have thoughtfully decided three things:
Where you will express this emotion?
To whom will you share your feelings?
Also, intentional anger is always, always, followed up with care, love, and concern. Your intent is not to belittle someone. Your job is not to make someone dwell in the pits of despair forever. The purpose here is to let people know that there are lines not to be crossed, things that are more important than others, and times when you have to stand up and not let it go by.
Finding the right balance between staying calm and intentionally getting mad is tough. I wish there were some great words of advice that I could give to you, but this is best learned by experience. For the most part, you'll be choosing to respond calmly and collectively. Make this your default, and then listen to your gut. Trust your intuition and you'll soon learn the few (yes, just a few) things that will require you to intentionally get mad. Uncommon leaders have the courage to master this difficult skill and, with time, my friend, you can too!