Emotional Agility is the Key to Leadership

Whether you are starting your own business, taking on a new leadership role in your career, or simply looking for better, more effective ways to lead a joyful life, improved emotional agility is key. Why?

Essentially, if you want to embrace the paradigm shift that’s taking place all over the world right now, you must be conscious of the connections you have with the people you work with and with the world around you. If you want to take your career and your life to new levels, you need to truly understand your emotions and the emotions that drive your interactions with others.

In my executive coaching practice, I had an executive as a client, let’s name him John. John was a high-achieving C-level leader in a fast-paced, pressure-cooking corporate role in the financial industry. He faced constant pressures to meet deadlines, manage stakeholders, manage market expectations, deliver quarterly results, keep up with the technological advancements in the industry, proactively manage global markets and political risks, and the list goes on and on.

While he enjoyed his work, and he often had his geek moments when it came to innovating new products, for John the demanding work environment often triggered stress, frustration, and anxiety (for example, the imposter syndrome, which is also called perceived fraudulence, and involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments).

There was a particular colleague who triggered John on an almost daily basis and whenever I met with John, he carried that brewing anger and frustration with him. John told me that this one colleague wouldn’t greet him back in the mornings, but rather ignored him completely. In his words, he described him as an “a..hole, who only cares about himself”.

John comes from a rather traditional-British upbringing where formalities in daily interactions play an important role in people’s lives. He expected some sort of formal greeting and recognition back from this person and angrily complained to me about his colleague in every coaching session that this “guy has no respect, is a selfish, rotten egomaniac from some unknown dump of a village in the countryside”.

You need to know that despite being raised and educated in more formal culture, filled with traditions and unspoken rules, John has a huge heart and deep appreciation for life. He has a lot of great traits and is a warm, well-liked person. But somehow this situation triggered in him an emotional storm in which he was stuck for weeks. It kept cooking in him and got so far as to almost inhibit him from doing his job in a satisfactory way. It was definitely time for a special intervention.

In my next coaching session with John, when he started again to vent about his colleague, I stopped him and offered some more information about this situation. I told him that I was made aware of some circumstances about his colleague that might play a role in why his colleague appears the way he appears. So I said to John: “What if you knew that your colleague’s wife is struggling with a life-threatening disease and they are going through some rough times, especially for their two young daughters, age 5 and 7? What would you feel and do differently?”

John stared at me and I could see all the remaining blood in his already pale face disappear. He was speechless, confused and obviously went through a rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions for about 5 minutes until he found his composure and asked me if this was true. So I answered him that it wouldn’t make a difference and it was more important to get him out of being stuck so that he realized how his emotional rigidity is negatively impacting him and his relationship with others. I explained that his colleague’s behavior was just a trigger of something bigger going on for John and that he is ready to learn about emotional agility.

Defining Emotional Agility

So what is emotional agilty? And how does it relate to leadership? According to Susan A. David, PhD, the award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of Emotional Agility, there are four key principles of emotional agility:

  • Showing up
  • Stepping out
  • Walking your why
  • Moving on

She also highlights the detrimental effects of “emotional rigidity”, where individuals avoid or deny their emotions, leading to increased stress, burnout, and impaired well-being.

“Showing up” refers to learning to face thoughts, emotions, and behaviors willingly, with curiosity and kindness, instead of ignoring difficult emotions or overemphasizing “positive thinking”.

“Stepping out” involved detaching from our thoughts and emotions, recognizing that they do not define us.

“Walking our why” centers around understanding our core values and using them as a compass for decision-making and behavior. By aligning our actions with our values, we cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.

And, “moving on” emphasizes the importance of letting go of unhelpful patterns and narratives that hold us back. By releasing attachment to negative emotions and past experiences, we can free ourselves to embrace new opportunities and growth.

In her book, David also highlights the detrimental effects of “emotional rigidity”, where individuals avoid or deny their emotions, leading to increased stress, burnout, and impaired well-being.

Benefits of Emotional Agility

Those who have high emotional agility are able to tune in to the emotions they’re feeling in any given situation, read those emotions, and understand how to use them to drive more positive interactions. Emotional agility is not necessarily a means to “control” your emotions; rather, it’s a means to be so in touch with them that you can regulate and redirect negative emotions and embrace positive ones.

Reducing Negativity in Your Thoughts and Interactions

For example, think of a situation in which you felt negatively about the way someone else was behaving. Did you take their behavior personally? And did you find yourself judging that person? If so, you’re not alone, but you weren’t using your emotional intelligence to improve the situation. Using emotional agility, you would avoid personalizing the other person’s actions and reduce your own negative thoughts.

Shifting from Reactive to Responsive Behavior

How do you feel if you call someone to discuss something that’s important to you, and they don’t call you back? Do you immediately think, “They didn’t call me back because they were ignoring me,” or, “My issue isn’t important to them?” Instead, shift the paradigm in your own mind and take yourself out of the equation. It’s just as likely that they haven’t called you back because they want to wait until they have enough time to devote to a quality conversation.

If you practice emotional agility, you can almost immediately stop blaming, judging, and thinking negatively of others, even when their behavior isn’t perfect. This will allow you to be a more effective leader and have more positive interactions with your colleagues, employees, friends, and other relationships.

Emotional Agility in Leadership

In addition to reducing negativity and handling interactions in a more positive manner, the leader who employs emotional intelligence will also:

  • Stay calm in stressful situations
  • Be proactive when confronting difficult people and/or situations
  • Express complicated emotions in a positive manner
  • Exhibit resilience in the face of adversity

By letting go of negative thoughts, learning not to take others’ actions personally, and knowing how to gauge your own emotions, you can lead by example and guide even the most delicate situations and interactions.

For a start you can practice these habits of highly emotionally agile leaders:

They Listen Actively and Deeply and Ask Questions

Emotionally agile leaders don’t talk over their employees, colleagues, friends, and/or family members. They also don’t just wait quietly for their turn to talk. They really listen to the thoughts and concerns of others. And, as they’re listening, they stay engaged and in tune with others’ emotions by asking questions. Simply asking for clarification or elaboration can make the person you’re speaking with feel more heard and more relevant, which will make them more open to you and your recommendations.

They Aren’t Afraid to Talk About Their Feelings

Men and women, alike, grow up being told not to be too emotional. Boys are generally taught not to discuss their feelings at all, but girls don’t have it any easier, either. While it’s generally more acceptable for women to “be emotional” and talk about their feelings, it’s also traditionally considered unprofessional or a sign of weakness.

Well, the paradigms are shifting, and with culture change comes effective leadership and emotional agility. Truly emotionally agile leaders are courageous and vulnerable enough to talk about how they feel. By opening up about their emotions in a professional and appropriate manner, they gain empathy with their colleagues and employees, and they have better access to more effective solutions to a whole range of problems and challenges.

They Take Time to Reflect on Their Emotions

If you talk to some of the most emotionally agile leaders you’ll ever meet, you’ll find that a lot of them have this one thing in common. They all take time each morning (even just a couple of minutes) to assess how they’re feeling and why. They might do it through meditation or journaling, gratitude exercises or reflection time.

If they wake up feeling stressed and tense, they’ll take a moment to analyze what’s causing that stress and how they can approach the problem with a constructive solution. Then they can relinquish some of that tension and anxiety to start the day with a fresh attitude, the ability to set intentions, and the zeal to take on any challenge.

Emotionally agile people don’t try to suppress their emotions. They notice thoughts, triggers and the resulting feelings, and regulate their own response to it. They don’t act out on them, but they work to understand the sources of their feelings and the “why?” of the matter. All of these habits help them do this, and they all contribute to deeper emotional agility and more effective leadership.

My client John has learned to face his emotions and understand the causes so that he isn’t reactive any longer, but is able to manage his response, observe his impact on others, and connect on a deeper level with people. Day by day he is becoming a more emotionally agile and effective leader.

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