The Angry Leader: Lessons from Management Meltdowns

It feels good to vent when things go wrong, but it fails badly. Here’s an alternative.

It started with an earthquake.

Then came the tsunami.

A giant fifty foot wave overwhelmed the seawall at the Fukushima Power Plant and flooded generators cooling the cores. The result: a rapid meltdown of three nuclear reactors.

The tragic event happened on March 11, over nine years ago, as thousands of people lost their lives in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

The word “meltdown” could be used for some of the behavior I’ve witnessed in businesses large and small. An earthquake, of sorts, occurs, a revenue target missed or a financial detail dropped. Troubling, yes, but not tragic.

Yet…

But then there’s the response to the earthquake, a tsunami of anger and accusation, which, in turn, results in more reaction and more accusation. Soon everyone is flooded with emotion, and the fallout affects the entire organization.

All caused by an angry leader. Here are three lessons from management meltdowns I’ve seen and an alternative to anger for tense situations.

Lesson One: Anger Feels Good but Fails Badly

For most of us, it feels good to get angry. And while some of us suffer pangs of guilt afterward, in the moment, we feel powerful, strong, and righteous, boldly proclaiming our particular point of view.

As cathartic as it may feel to vent our anger, the results are always destructive. There are scores of different reasons for this, but here’s the main one: it injects fear into the organization. And fear doesn’t deliver world-class results.

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Fear causes people to think only of short-term objectives, most notably alleviating the source of fear. It keeps others from taking risks, fearing failure and the punishment it brings, and closes everyone’s mind to creative alternatives. Anxiety and creativity do not coexist.

Think of it this way. People will run really, really fast for two reasons. To get away from a snarling German shepherd or to win a gold medal. With the former, people stop running when the German Shepherd is gone. With the latter, they’ll run year after year after year to beat the competition.

Which of those two outcomes do you want in your company?

Lesson Two: You Get What You Ask For but Not What You Want

Of course, the natural consequence of fear is compliance. That is, the sheer force of fear makes people do what you say. Immediately. Without thinking.

But is that what you really want? People acting without thinking? Is this the kind of business you want to build, a collection of people who look to you to tell them what to do, afraid of taking independent action?

I didn’t think so.

But that’s what the phrase “you get what you ask for but not what you want” means. You want strong, strategic thinkers who bring all their energy and creativity to the table to meet the challenges of the marketplace. Anger short-circuits that.

Again, anxiety and creativity do not coexist. Neither do enforcement and empowerment. Nor personal accusation and open discussion.

Lesson Three: Anger Poisons Its Possessor

“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies,” the brilliant Nelson Mandela once declared.

Anger has a similar effect. The more we give in to anger, the more we get angry. And the more we get angry, the more we become an angry leader, managing people through fear, intimidation, and exploitation.

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Like most things in life, anger is something that happens. It’s part of the human experience. The goal is not to eliminate it—that can’t be done this side of eternity—but to control it. To manage it. To keep it from hijacking the airplane of our leadership and crashing it into the ground.

Here’s the alternative, then, to the meltdowns anger can cause.

Anger’s Alternative: Stop. Be Safe. Be Sound.

Anger is part of the emergency response system that’s been built into our brains. It’s the fight side of the fight or flight reaction we feel in a threatening situation. As such, anger is a primal emotion and not our best foot forward in most situations.

The adrenaline that surges through our veins when we’re angry (much like a tsunami) can overwhelm us and cause us to say things and do things we regret later. Really stupid things.

When that overwhelming impulse to act flows through you, stop. Do nothing. Get control of your emotions before you say anything, before you do anything.

Then be safe. That is, attend to the dynamics of the relationship before addressing the issue at hand. Set a context where your words can be heard. Listen before you speak. Understand before you try being understood. If you’ve contributed to the problem at hand, own it and say you’re sorry.

Then, when it’s time for you to speak: be sound. State your point of view clearly, plainly, factually. And be brief.

The tendency we have when operating under the influence of adrenaline is to exaggerate, press our point too hard, and go on and on and on, kind of like putting a tack in the wall with a sledgehammer. This will cause people to reject in its entirety what we have to say.

Here’s advice I was once given about my tendency to talk too much in a tense situation, “Stand up, speak up, and shut up.” Not bad advice.

Are you an an angry leader? Here’s my warning: it will ruin the business you’re trying to build and destroy the people you care about the most. Don’t take my word for it, however, consider the wisdom of King Solomon, “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.”

In other words, stop. Be safe. Be sound.


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