Creative leadership and emotional regulation
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

You hear us say a lot that leadership is about taking responsibility for our world. That’s what creative leaders do. But what does that mean?
It means taking ownership of how we experience the world. It means recovering to our centred, grounded Self when we’re triggered. It means making non-reactive choices from our centred Self.

Most of the time you’re reactive

Owning your experience of the world might sound strange to you. What else would you do? Yet whenever you think you have the whole truth about what’s going on, the truth about what’s right or wrong, you’re not owning your experience as just one perspective.
Two people experience one and the same situation differently. Imagine someone gives you and someone else a look. The other person doesn’t even notice that look and forgets the moment instantly. You, however, get activated by what you’ve just seen: you become sad, mad, or hopeful, delighted. You’re reactive.
When you’re delighted, it’s usually not a problem that you are reactive, unless it turns into a bit of an addiction to constant approval from others. After all everyone enjoys “positive” feelings like delight.
But when something happens that makes you feel “negative” feelings, you likely react differently. It’s a simple physical stress response. Your brain gets flooded with hormones. You get ready to fight the situation or the person. Ready to flee from it or them, or to freeze, which means getting into a state of readiness for your next move.
This happens all of the time.

This is where a leader’s responsibility comes in

There’s a tiny pause between your experience and your physical reaction. In this pause you can recover. When you recover to your calm Self, you recover to taking responsibility for your own world. In other words, you recover to leadership.

This week, I’ve had the chance to practice this

I’ve recently experienced a real fight and flight moment (both combined). I’m still digesting it, falling in and out of being reactive.
One of the things that trigger me the most is feeling incompetent. It makes me feel ashamed. I respond with anger, attacking others (in my mind or openly). I also have a strong urge to take myself out of the situation or relationship that “made me feel” incompetent.

Here’s the context to a small event that recently created ripples in my emotional life. I play the cello in the local orchestra. It’s unexpected and exciting, because I only took up cello lessons when I turned 40. I never expected that I would become good enough to play in an orchestra. Every Saturday afternoon we meet, and it’s a very lovely little crowd of people playing together.

But the closer we come to a concert, the less relaxed the atmosphere. I get more and more tense, because I need to perform well to feel good. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one in the room who needs to be seen performing well. Our conductor gets tense and frustrated as well as the concert approaches.

I was on the spot

I’m usually not the one on the spot, because the cello is not as important as the violin, but last week it happened. I was asked to replace some of the cello with the bass part, and it confused me. I had to say “No, I cannot do this without practicing it at home.” And I got really angry about it, so much so, that I had to take myself out of the room during the break to calm down in private. No doubt, everyone noticed how irritated I was.

I could beat myself up for getting triggered by something small like that, after all these years of working on my leadership and emotional regulation. If you look at it from the outside, it’s really not that big a deal. But there’s no point in getting worked up about it. Instead, I’m looking at what I’ve learnt from it so far, and I want to share that with you.

1) It’s worth writing down what we see, and how we feel about it, as soon as possible after we get triggered

Else our minds play tricks on us. Over time, we tend to remember what fits into our world view and justifies our thinking. We tend to forget what doesn’t fit into that world view. We don’t do that on purpose, it’s just one of those tricks our minds play us. Luckily, I took notes on Saturday evening to make sure I would remember what I experienced. After I’ve written the first draft of this blog, I referred back to the notes. I was puzzled by my strong response to my conductor’s simple ask. Reading my notes was enlightening. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

2) It is part of the human experience to be reactive

I can notice my response and don’t need to judge myself for it. Yes, I am still activated. Part of me is neither enjoying my daily practice, nor keen on going to the next rehearsal. However, I can be with these feelings without having to act on them. I still practice, and I’ll still go.

3) Every one of our recurrent experiences of the same trigger helps us grow a little more

We just have to stay open and curious. Change is incremental, and the same triggers keep coming back. Rather than getting hung up about that, I notice the shift from how I would have responded years ago. While I’ve had a surprisingly strong reaction, I am staying curious. Further to that, my focus is on myself, not on how others have failed me. 5 years ago, I would have stayed in the comfort of blaming others, rather than exploring what I cannot be with. Today, I don’t need to blame others to justify my inner turmoil. I can take responsibility for it.

4) It helps not to walk the leadership journey alone

I’m lucky to have a community of people who keep me honest and with whom I can process my experience. I know that they will just listen with compassion as I share my imperfection. And they will also call me forth when needed.

5) It’s worth digging a little deeper

When I allow myself to ask what’s underneath the presenting emotion, I find shame underneath my anger. The shame comes with a limiting belief which I have a hard time being with: “I can’t master this. I’m not good enough at this. No matter how hard I practice, I won’t master all of this music.” Back to the notes: Such were my thoughts while practicing in the morning BEFORE the rehearsal. The rehearsal’s events landed on that “fertile ground”. Thus, a simple request to do something I felt unable to do turned a slow burning fire into a blaze. And a few other tiny little moments inbetween that stirred the fire. I would not even know this anymore, if I hadn’t written it down in my notebook.

How our identity makes us reactive

We all have reactive tendencies which throw us off our leadership. My reactive tendency is to protect myself against threats to my identity of being competent. Feeling competent makes me feel safe and worthy. So my work as a leader is to continue noticing these believed threats as soon as my reaction starts playing out. I have to catch my limiting thoughts ever quicker so I can separate from them. It’s important to remember: I am not my limiting beliefs. I just have them. And I can choose to let them go. That way I can release their power over me. I can recover to my creative leadership and meet the moment with calmness and curiosity.
What identity are you holding on to when you get reactive?

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

You might also like…

Making Difficult Conversations Easier
Making Difficult Conversations Easier

I was recently working with a group of Senior Researchers, Post-docs and Laboratory Managers from across Europe. The topic: difficult conversations. A popular topic for leaders, new and well seasoned. What makes a conversation difficult? That’s partially individual,...

Getting unstuck by exploring your many parts
Getting unstuck by exploring your many parts

Think of a moment when you were stuck. As you talked to a coach or a friend, you gained new insight into your stuckness, and with the liberating energy of this insight, you were able to do what it took to move toward your goal. Getting unstuck can be so easy! However,...

Stop Downloading – Start Listening
Stop Downloading – Start Listening

I recently wrote about the challenges that leaders face when attempting to listen generatively. We spend too much time downloading (to reconfirm what we already know, i.e. not really listening) or listening factually (to confirm or disconfirm what you already know,...

Share This