The Inner Work of Leadership

Jonathan Males explains why it’s so important for leaders to balance their emotions.

Humans are social animals. As part of our pack behaviour, our brains are hard-wired to pick up subtle cues about our pack leaders’ moods and emotions. So whether they’re conscious of it or not, a leader’s emotional tone casts a long shadow in an organisation. Their mood can turn an energising, invigorating and motivating atmosphere into one that’s characterised by worry, fear and uncertainty. And while this sounds like common sense, research is increasingly suggesting that a positive emotional tone improves leadership performance, productivity and creativity.

What is ‘inner work’?

‘Inner work’ means understanding your own emotions and how they affect your work – which is even more important in a position of responsibility. It’s how you find your equilibrium.

Many emotions come from the basic human needs for power, security, love and esteem, which in turn influence personality and behaviour. Problems arise when people adopt unproductive ways of meeting these needs and are made worse when they are in positions of power: minor weaknesses become amplified and can have a negative impact throughout the whole organisation.

This doesn’t mean that leaders need to repress their emotions and become a coldly logical Mr Spock – they need emotions to inspire passion and to motivate people. Instead, they need to develop self-awareness, and recognise and manage their emotional needs without harming their people or organisation.

Why is it so important?

What happens when a leader hasn’t done their inner work? One example is a boss who bullies their underlings to compensate for a feeling of powerlessness. It might be hard to spot through someone’s success, drive or charisma, but it’s a sure sign that their team won’t be performing to their full potential.

On the other hand, you might have a leader who is intellectually brilliant but wants to avoid conflict because deep down he lacks confidence and fears rejection. As a result he avoids tough conversations and keeps too much distance from his people, who see him as aloof and arrogant.

Ideally, a leader will develop the capacity for emotional equilibrium, so that they can retain their sense of ease and balance, while still displaying a useful and appropriate range of emotions.

Four steps to doing your inner leadership work

1. Keep a list
Note down people and situations that you react to more strongly than you should. For instance, most of us might curse when we’re caught up in traffic, but normally calm down fairly quickly. Staying in a day-long rage and flying off the handle at your staff would be an emotional response that’s stronger than it should be.

Emotions like anger help us respond to immediate threats, and then return to equilibrium. But major swings away from this emotional balance are warning signs that you need to pay attention to.

2. Spot the patterns
When you’ve got your list, scour it for patterns and try and spot the triggers: when you lose control, when your self-esteem is challenged, when conflict looms?

These patterns point to the root cause, which is often fear-based or a deep-seated, but incorrect, assumption: for instance, “if I lose control I’ll be left weak and powerless” or “if I challenge others, I’ll get hurt.” Once you can see the assumption, it will often lose its power.

3. Get feedback
Everyone has blind spots that prevent self-awareness.  To get an objective view of your own behaviour and impact on others, you need to turn to a colleague you trust, or a coach.

It’s a powerful moment when leaders discover that their people find them bullying or critical …when they might have seen their own behaviour as reasonable, or called it ‘demanding’ or ‘robust’. When they see the negative impact it has, it’s a powerful motivation to change.

4. Reflect
Spending some time each day in quiet reflection will do more than anything else to build inner resilience. Just sitting still and tuning into your body and breathing is a powerful discipline. It lets you rise above the turmoil of thoughts and feelings and starts to bring some coherence to your inner world. In practice, this might mean anything from formal meditation through to running or even painting. Find a form you look forward to though, and you’ll soon see the benefit.

Bring your emotions to work

So, it’s not about leaders leaving their emotions at the door when they arrive at the office. In fact, not only is that an impossibility, but trying will only make things worse. Instead, they need to take time to understand how their inner life affects their leadership behaviour and decision making.  Then they’ll find themselves raising both their own performance and that of the people around them.

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