Nick Humphrey takes a look at the deadly leadership sin, Wrath, in the third article of his seven-part series.
What is wrath?
Rage, fury or extreme anger.
We have all worked with angry and abusive leaders. They are the ones that scream insults, point fingers, react emotionally to failure and cannot control their emotions.
Some leaders use positive leadership techniques like enthusiasm and admiration to motivate their teams. Others use criticism and aggression to intimidate.
Indeed some well known leaders who are highly regarded for driving successful results, are also infamous for their not infrequent tirades: Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Gordon Ramsay, and Rahm Emanuel. These leaders are the exception rather than the rule, with their charisma and compelling revolutionary visions outweighing their ill-tempers.
Anger is usually triggered when we perceive a potential threat to our physical, social or psychological well-being. Threats to our personal safety are easy to comprehend. However in some instances, we respond in the same way to an insult, accusation, allocation of blame, criticism, put-down or other slight. The form of response depends about how serious we perceive both the threat and our ability to manage that threat.
Bill Gardner explains:
“The difference in our assumption about the size of the threat and our perceived power results in our level of anger. Facing a small threat with lots of power means you may feel surprised or annoyed. Facing a large threat with less power might make you feel angry or furious.”
Why is wrath counter-productive as a leader?
Uncontrolled anger risks a number of negative consequences:
Adverse affect on your own well-being: According to the American Psychological Association, research shows that uncontrolled anger:
can adversely affect your physical health and emotional wellbeing
increases your chances of developing heart disease
exacerbates stress and stress-related issues like insomnia, headaches and depression
contributes to risky behaviours such as drug and alcohol use
can significantly damage relationships with family, friends and colleagues.
Ineffective leadership: There are a number of studies that show that sports coaches who are angry with players, such as yelling abuse or derogatory comments, are ineffective. In particular these studies show that:
players lose confidence and felt embarrassed or frustrated
players felt their performance was worse after the incident
the coach loses credibility or looks unprofessional.
Poor decision-making: People tend to make poor decisions when angry, relying on cognitive shortcuts and stereotypes, rather than more systematic reasoning. They are also more likely to blame individuals for problems, rather than aspects of the situation.
Escalation: By reacting with anger to a perceived risk you escalate the situation. For example, an employee confronts you with their frustration over working conditions. If you respond angrily, the employee will become even more emotional and respond defensively and is more likely to become aggressive.
Strategies for controlling anger
In this section we consider some useful strategies for controlling your anger:
Control and calmness: It is important to consider that whilst uncontrolled anger is almost always a poor trait for leaders, it doesn’t mean we have to be submissive.
A well-known phrase from the bible is “Blessed are the meek: for they shall the inherit the earth.” The common interpretation of this phrase is that we should be gentle, mild, submissive.
However, the phrase originally had a more subtle meaning. The Greek word for meek was praus, meaning “power under control.” Similarly, another source states praus is derived from the Greek root “pra-”, meaning “demonstrating power without undue harshness”. Praus was also used by the Greeks to describe a well-trained war horse that remained controlled and calm even in the confusion and heat of battle.
Perhaps this is a better guide for leaders. To remain calm yet strong, without undue harshness. An iron fist in a silk glove. A broad-sword sheathed in its scabbard.
Understanding and controlling our anger: According to Henry Evans and Colm Foster, authors of “Step Up: Lead in Six Moments That Matter”, high performing leaders master the whole spectrum of emotions, including anger.
Leaders are often confronted with situations that require assertiveness and “a little tough talk”. Anger is a core emotion, leaders need to understand it and control it. In fact, recent research shows that “anger has its own utility at work and can be used for positive outcomes,” particularly in high pressure situations where time is tight, immediate effective action is required and the stakes are high (like military exercises). Some helpful guidelines proposed by Evans and Foster:
don’t say something you will regret
don’t make it personal or derogatory
don’t do it publicly.
Brand: It doesn’t hurt to show the team every now and again that you aren’t afraid to be assertive. We can learn a lesson from the pirates from a few hundred years ago who ran very successful (albeit criminal) enterprises. Blackbeard has a fearsome reputation yet the infamous pirate, over the course of his career in fact killed no one, and made no one walk the plank. He was certainly tough and assertive but it seems he built a personal brand of barbarism (which made the merchant ships more likely to hand over their treasure without a fight). According to Eric Barker, Blackbeard’s crew were however relatively well treated (far better than the merchant navy) with equal split of takings, fairly democratic decision making and the captain received no special perks.
Use sparingly: Indeed, those sports coaches who are usually calm and level-headed with their players were able to increase second-half performance when they gave the team a “spray” about their poor performance at half-time. The secret was that it was used sparingly and wasn’t personalized.
Don’t carry grudges: It is important to move on and let go of your grudges. A study at Emory University found that holding onto grudges contributes to heart disease and elevated blood pressure. Bradberry explains that:
“The negative emotions that come with holding onto a grudge are actually a stress response. Just thinking about the event involved sends your body into fight-or-flight mode. When a threat is imminent, this reaction is essential to your survival, but when a threat is ancient history, holding onto that stress wreaks havoc on your body and can have devastating health consequences over time.”
Focus on outcomes: You can experience the same event in completely different ways. You can react mindlessly and automatically, usually in a way that exacerbates the problem (for example, by reacting with anger you will provoke further conflict). Alternatively you can respond mindfully, with full attentiveness and boost your consciousness, thereby opening up a range of potential responses and actions to influence the outcome.
It is about seeing the turmoil arising from your instinctive reactions for what they are: emotions and feelings. So instead of reacting blindly to an event or stressor, focus on the outcome you want to achieve and then the best reaction to achieve that outcome.
Agreeableness: Recent research shows that anger is more likely to be a good motivator for an employee who has a personality that is low in “agreeableness”, being the extent to which they desire harmonious relationships. Heidi Grant Halvorson explains:
“People low in agreeableness … don’t care as much if everyone in the sandbox isn’t playing nicely together. They get into arguments more often, don’t shy away from conflict, are more sceptical of the motives and actions of others, and are bothered less by insensitive behavior. It stands to reason, then that anger should be a more effective motivator for people who care less about harmony, but should be too anxiety-provoking and counterproductive when harmonious relationships matter more.”
Accountability: Jennifer Lerner and Katherine Shonk report that companies can mitigate the impact of anger on decision-making by enforcing accountability. A study in 2010 found that if you expect your decisions will be evaluated by someone whose opinions you don’t know, you’ll be more likely to curb the unconscious effects of anger on your cognitive process.
Harness: Martin Luther King had reason enough to be wrathful. He was provoked, threatened and attacked by bigoted people. Indeed he was harassed by the FBI, jailed by state authorities, had his house fire-bombed, and was even denigrated by fellow black leaders who called for more aggressive resistance.
Hitendra Wadhwa eloquently argues that:
“Great leaders do not ignore their anger, nor do they allow themselves to get consumed by it. Instead, they channel the emotion into energy, commitment, sacrifice, and purpose. They use it to step up their game. And they infuse people around them with this form of constructive anger so they, too, can be infused with energy commitment, sacrifice and purpose. In the words of King in Freedomways magazine in 1968, "The supreme task [of a leader] is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force."
Calibrate your anger: Gardner suggests the following approach to calibrating your response to a situation:
Pause: It is important that you recognise the typical situations that trigger your anger response. Be wary of the signs of your rising frustration and step away from the situation and use relaxation techniques to manage your response.
Your “lizard brain” or amygdala is the raw emotional part of your brain that wants to lash out to a threat. The good news is that your pre-frontal cortex, your rational brain, can rein in the emotion but it just needs time. You literally just need to take a few deep breaths and think about your reaction a bit longer. As little as five seconds ought to do it.
Relax: The American Psychological Association recommends the following simple relaxation strategies to help soothe angry feelings:
Practice taking slow deep and controlled breaths. Imagine them coming from deep in your belly rather than your chest. Remember shallow breaths are angry breaths.
Use visualisation to imagine a relaxing experience from your memory like your last holiday or weekend.
Try meditating or use a simple body-scan technique (which is when you focus your thoughts on one part of your body at a time, scanning from head to toe).
About the author
Nick Humphrey is the managing partner of Hamilton Locke. He is the Chairman of the Australian Growth Company Awards and author of a number of best-selling books on business and leadership. His latest book is Maverick Executive: strategies for Driving Clarity, Effectiveness and Focus, published by Wolters Kluwer.
1. Heidi Grant Halvorson, “Should a Leader Show Anger?”, Fast Company, 11 October 2010 https://www.fastcompany.com/1703326/should-leader-show-anger
2. Bill Gardner, ”Leaders Deal with Others’ Anger (And Their Own)’, Forbes, 30 January 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/01/30/leaders-deal-with-others-anger-and-their-own/#213eb50010dd
4. David C. Barney, Alema Tauiliili, “Does Any Good Come From a Coach that Yells? Reflective Experiences from Former Athletes”, 2 November 2017, BYU Scholars Archives https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3062&context=facpub
5. Jennifer S. Lerner and Katherine Shonk, “How anger poisons decision making”, Harvard Business Review, September 2010, https://hbr.org/2010/09/how-anger-poisons-decision-making
6. Lerner and Shonk, ibid
7. Brian S. Holmes, Pastor & Owner of MPoweredChristian.org, “What is the ancient meaning of the Bible passage "The meek shall inherit the Earth"?”, 28 March 2017, Quora, https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-ancient-meaning-of-the-Bible-passage-The-meek-shall-inherit-the-Earth
9. Holmes, ibid
10. Jeff Haden, “Why Great Leaders Get Angry-and Show It”, 24 April 2014, Inc. https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/why-great-leaders-get-angry-and-show-it.html
11. Tamanna Mishra, “Angry leaders are a problem. Or are they?”, 26 July 2017, Your Story, https://yourstory.com/2017/07/angry-leaders-problem/
12. Dirk Lindebaum, Peter J Jordan, Lucy Morris, “Symmetrical and asymmetrical outcomes of leader anger expression: A qualitative study of army personnel”, February 2016, NCBI, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4745039/
13. Eric Barker, “Barking up the wrong tree,” HarperOne, 2017
14. Barker, ibid
15. Travis Bradberry, “How Successful People Quash Stress,” Forbes, Dec 9, 2014 page 2 http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/12/09/how-successful-people-handle-stress/2/
16. Bradberry, ibid
17. Halvorson, ibid
18. Lerner and Shonk, ibid
19. Hitendra Wadhwa, “The Wrath of a Great Leader: How Martin Luther King, Jr. wrestled with anger and what you can learn from his example.”, Inc., 21 January 2013, https://www.inc.com/hitendra-wadhwa/great-leadership-how-martin-luther-king-jr-wrestled-with-anger.html
20. Wadhwa, ibid
21. Bill Gardner,” Leaders Deal with Others’ Anger (And Their Own)’, Forbes, 30 January 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/01/30/leaders-deal-with-others-anger-and-their-own/#213eb50010dd
23. Peter Bregman, “18 minutes: Find your focus, master your distraction and get the right things done,” Orion, 2011, pg 12