Cognitive Behavioral Leadership (CBL): Recognize and Manage Your Emotional ArousalPosted on September 29, 2019

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

The human brain generates thousands of emotions of varying intensity every day. While our brains allow us to reflect—and to modify to some extent—what we are thinking and feeling, most leaders just accept the feelings their brains have triggered and act on them without recognizing or second-guessing their emotional arousal. When the leader’s brain creates any strong emotion, it generates an explanation for doing so. Intriguingly, the leader’s brain almost never takes credit for the feeling it has invented. Instead, the leader’s brain blames something or someone else. Because most leaders accept this mistaken attribution without question, aroused leaders don’t even realize what their brains have done to them. This is not surprising. After all, questioning one’s brain is trying, and the guilty brain is not eager to cooperate.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Your feelings drive your behavior. The less you know about which feelings are calling the shots at any given moment, the less control you have over how you behave. And you have probably already discovered that impulsive behavior usually gets leaders into trouble. Building the emotional intelligence that will permit you to recognize your arousal and do what needs to be done despite your brain’s goading will set you apart. Most people accept their feelings and their brains’ explanations for them without question and leave the driving to the urges their minds have unleashed. This is why people need leaders—to manage the feelings they are unwilling to manage themselves.

How can you do it?

  1. Monitor your breathing and pulse. These neurological signals are among the first signs that your reptilian brain networks are preparing to override your prefrontal cortex, that part of our brain that sets us apart from other living organisms.
  2. Recognize your erupting feelings. Anger is the most common intruder. Fear and hurt are also frequent visitors to the leader’s mind. Resist your natural tendency to deny or minimize your feelings. It’s true that all destructive feelings exist on a continuum; anger ranges from mild annoyance to murderous rage. But no matter their intensity, destructive feelings are still destructive and must be contained quickly.
  3. Restrain your urges. This is easier said than done, but the best leaders get it done. If you feel the urge to speak impulsively, speak deliberately or not at all. If you feel the need to opine, keep your opinions to yourself. If you feel the urge to decide on the spot, sleep on it instead. Recognizing your urges is necessary but insufficient. You must learn to automatically resist them, too.

How have you recognized and managed your emotional arousal in leadership crises?

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