One of the secrets to emotional intelligence (and leadership for that matter) is our ability to self manage—to keep destructive emotions in check, to make conscious choices in the moment (as opposed to snap judgments or decisions made out of anger or fear), and otherwise control ourselves.

Like a kid who has to eat his veggies before dessert, leadership requires a certain amount of self control to be effective.  As much as we’d like to scream and shout and throw things like a five year old hopped up on candy and meanness, acting out never serves us well.   Not acting out can be just as bad—such as when we fail to give tough feedback because we don’t want to hurt another person’s feelings or we don’t speak up when really bad decisions are being made because we are afraid of repercussions.  Often the story we make up in our heads is grounded in fear and not in reality—we make things out to be worse than they really are, we turn others into villains and ourselves into victims, without lifting a finger or even asking a question.

We also spend a lot of time on autopilot.  Our brains are built for efficiency, and if we stopped to consider every little thing, we’d spend our days remembering to breathe. In fact, our brains are so good that it makes most of our decisions subconsciously, never bothering to check in with our conscious selves to see if we really are making a good choice.   Humans make around 9,000 choices a day—most of which are routine.  Imagine if you had to spend a lot of time thinking about how to brush your teeth or the best way to dry your hair.  Not much would get done, and our teeth wouldn’t be any cleaner.   (You should be flossing though.  That’s what the dentist tells me every time I see him, so it must be true.)

How can we wake up?  How can we shake off the power of negative emotions to rule our lives, either making us blunder into bad situations or freezing us into inaction?  How can we develop our self control, and, ultimately, the ability to manage our selves?

By pausing.

Imagine a mental pause button that gives you the power to think.  Whenever you want to, you can press that pause button and ask yourself, “What is the most effective thing I can do right now? What can I do that will take me one step closer to my goal?”

The next time someone makes you want to shout and throw things, push your mental pause button and ask yourself “What is the most effective thing I can do right now?”  Pausing will give the smart part of your brain a chance to catch up with the animal part of your brain that wants to break things.  Pausing will give you the chance to make a conscious choice, versus a choice made out of anger and fear.

The next time you don’t speak up because a little voice in your head says “If you give them feedback, you will lose your job, your house, your future and will die a pauper,” push the pause button, and ask “What can I do that will take me one step closer to my goals?”  Whatever the answer is, do that.  If speaking up gets you closer to your goals, then do that.  If speaking up will help you sleep at night, then do that.

The trick is to pause, and make a conscious choice.  This is leadership, and it shouldn’t be performed on autopilot or jacked up on negative emotions.   It doesn’t always work, of course.  Sometimes, nothing in the world can stop you from telling the jerk in the next cube to shut up because you don’t want to hear another story about his corns or his bunions or whatever gross foot disorder he’s dealing with this week.  But pausing gives us a shot at making a better choice in the moment, one that won’t call for a clean-up on aisle five or a visit from a friendly HR rep.




Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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