October 11, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
Leadership is emotional work. “There’s no leading without bleeding,” Jerome Murphy, professor and former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes in the most recent Phi Delta Kappan. “No matter what we call it — stress, agitation, loss, frustration, fear, exhaustion, shame, confusion, sadness, loneliness, hurt — there’s not an executive alive who can lead without experiencing emotional discomfort.” Anyone who has led – from the head or the foot of the table – knows exactly what Murphy means.
Leaders can’t escape this occupational hazard; however, they can be their own worst enemy in responding to it – turning inevitable job discomforts into personal anguish and self-doubt that erode focus and energy.
“In the privacy of our minds, we can make things worse by fighting our discomfort, getting hooked on our troubling thoughts, and scolding ourselves for falling short. As a consequence, we can sidetrack our work and lose sight of what really matters to us.”
The stage is set for unproductive denial (and an investment of psychic energy pretending we’re not uncomfortable) or negative self-talk (and worries about whether our discomfort is a sign that we’re a flop or, worse yet, no leader at all). “In the grip of mind chatter that sounds like a Greek chorus of naysayers, it’s not unusual to rehash the past, fret about the future, and hang ourselves out to dry,” concludes Murphy.
There are more productive ways to respond, and Murphy draws from psychology and Eastern thinking to suggest six.
1. accept the emotional discomforts at the core of leading: “In doing so, we can hold them more lightly, believe them less resolutely, and take them less personally.”
2. acknowledge distress without clinging to it: “We can have our thoughts rather than be had by them.”
3. focus on changing behaviors, not feelings: “We can accept what we’re experiencing at the moment while still working to make things better.”
4. treat self with compassion, kindness, and care. “Both intuitively and through scientific research, we know that self-compassion is central to well-being.”
5. accept human imperfection: “Self-criticism is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation — as if ‘I’ were the only person suffering or making mistakes.”
6. keep faith in core values: They remind us what’s at stake and put the inevitable discomforts in leading from and toward them in perspective.
Mindfulness training can help cultivate these habits of the mind. The leadership payback is clear: increased capacities for situational diagnosis, task focus, calm value-centered action, and resilience.
Our internal dramas may still be intense, warns Murphy, but we’ll witness them from a safe, nonjudgmental place where we can respond wisely.
 Jerome. T. Murphy. Dancing in the rain: Tips on thriving as a leader in tough times. Phi Delta Kappan (September 2011), 93 (1): 36-41.