Originally published for my column, Inner Actions, on Feminist.com
When you think about the great leaders in your life, what qualities do they generally possess? Since we are all leaders in some way (I’m talking to you, mothers, healers and even administrative assistants!) it’s a good question to ask. I’ll bet on your list is an ability to find humor in many situations, without treating serious ones in a flippant manner. I’ll bet it includes conviction, caring, compassion, and firmness. And most likely, there is the asset of calm and emotional evenness.
Emotional reactivity has its occasional place in leadership, but mostly, leading with your emotions is a bad idea. It makes you seem erratic, unstable, untrustworthy, and is likely to create more anxiety in your team, your clients, your kids or whomever it is you are leading and teaching.
And yet, it seems, at every turn, our staff or clients or children give us plenty of reasons to react!
I am sure this is not a new question for many of you. Today I am going to talk about a little process I use called, “Backing Up.”
When you find yourself in a snit, in an argument or a power struggle, where do you notice your energy is in your body? For me, it is all in the front. Often, I feel as though my energy is being drawn out of the front of my body through my abdomen or center, and into a dance with whatever or whomever I am grappling with. This is a signal that I am being pulled outside of myself and into a drama.
Rather than engage in the tug of war and “tug back” with my words, emotions and bright ideas, the first thing I do when I feel my energy being tugged on and my alarm bells are ringing, is Back Up. You know when a truck is backing up and it makes that beep, beep, beep
sound? If I remember to make that sound in my head, I can keep a playful attitude about the whole thing, and understand that a challenge and growth opportunity is upon us. And it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as it feels.
The next thing I do (assuming I have caught it in the first place, of course!) is take a breath, plant my feet firmly on the ground and pull my energy Back and Up in my body, to the back of my body. It’s sort of like a camera panning out in a movie. It offers me a broader view of the person and situation. I am not withdrawing from the person, situation or content in the e-mail — simply from the invitation to spar.
Backing up is also a way to slow down and give myself time to see a situation more clearly. It helps me feel as though I am holding myself in check. Then I can remind myself of my true job and make a choice on how I want to handle things based on that. I may want or need to negotiate, sleep on it, correct the provocateur, or readjust my position. Assessing the situation with my mind rather than leading with my feelings is a powerful way to engage my creativity in leading.
This, mind you, takes time, effort and practice! We may be in a habitual pattern of simply reacting to what people do and say. We may have even been taught that expressing our emotions as we feel them in full is a healthy or effective way to communicate. But leaders take heed, while your feelings provide you with essential information, they don’t necessarily need to be broadcast to the world all the time. Back up, and with time and practice you will learn how to stay with yourself, return to the task at hand, and step gracefully with right action into the next moment.