The Secret to Leadership

The Secret to Leadership

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it: and this you have power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius

businessman holding question mark


What if you knew the “secret” of being a great leader and living a happier life? Would you invest the time and effort to change?
That secret is self-management, and it involves a two-step process:


  • First, you need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself. Beyond knowing your strengths, weaknesses and values, you must also become aware of your habitual patterns of feeling, thinking and reacting.
  • Second, you need to develop the skill to manage your emotional states that arise from those patterns, so that they don’t overwhelm and control you.

Why Should You Care?

Do you want your company to stay exactly the same as is today? Of course not. Stagnation in our quickly-evolving business world will only guarantee it’s demise.

A McKinsey article states, “organization change is inseparable from individual change.” Attempts to change, though, often fail because leaders refuse to make fundamental changes in themselves. Said another way, “Organizations don’t change. People do.” If you want to your company to change, you must have a deep commitment to change yourself. And, research shows that:

Now, think about your personal relationships. How many times have your emotional reactions to others caused you problems or pain? What if you could better manage those reactions? Would you be happier? Be a better leader?

Self Awareness

Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book state in their book, The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your SuccessThe Secret to Leadership:

“Obviously, what you don’t recognize, you can’t manage. If you aren’t aware of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and the way it’s affecting others, you can’t change. If in your own blinkered view, there’s nothing wrong, then there’s no need or reason to change. That’s why self-awareness is key and basic.”

There are countless assessments and personality tests that you can use to help you understand yourself. My preferred tool is the Enneagram, which is a very deep and dynamic map of the ego. There are other tools available. In order to become self-aware, it’s important for you to find one that resonates with you.

Self-Management and Emotional Maturity

An intellectual understanding of yourself is not enough. You must apply your self-knowledge and learn to not only manage, but to choose, your emotional states.

Learning to manage yourself starts with self-observation, a process of neutrally and compassionately watching yourself. Imagine that an objective outsider can see inside you and is describing each thought and accompanying sensation in your body. Here’s how he would describe your inner experience:

Now there is a thought: “I’m not good enough.”

When he thinks that thought, his throat and stomach tightens.

Self-observation allows you to recognize when a habitual pattern and consequent reaction is presenting itself in the current moment. With this awareness, you can make a choice. How do I want to behave and feel now? Without this awareness, your emotions will control you, and they can potentially damage your business and personal relationships.

Many of the CEOs and Sr. Executives with whom I work frequently say, “Take the emotions out of it!” Unfortunately, that is exactly the wrong approach. Each attempt to deny and control your own emotions disconnects you from your heart and separates you from others. Relying solely on thinking and (trying to) deny your emotions only intensifies them until they can no longer be contained. An intense reaction is inevitable to release all of that pent up emotion.

How to Acknowledge and Release Your Emotions

Most of our conscious brain is focused outside of ourselves. We make plans for the future, or we try to persuade others to change so that we may feel better. However, that does not help us manage ourselves. Neuroscience researchThe Secret to Leadership shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is to become aware of our own inner experience and learn to allow it.
Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist, describes a process she calls RAIN to manage our emotional states:

R– Recognize what is happening (be self-aware).

A– Allow this situation to be just as it is. Don’t fight it or deny it. Reality always wins and resisting it is a major cause of emotional reactivity. Instead, notice each thought and allow any sensation in your body to be there.

I– Investigate your inner experience with kindness. Gently, ask yourself questions to understand what is happening inside of you, and why.

N– Non-Identification. Brach states that, ”Non-identification means that your sense of who you are is not fused with or defined by any limited set of emotions, sensations, or stories (self-identity).…. The first three steps of RAIN require some intentional activity. In contrast, the N of RAIN expresses the result: a liberating realization of your natural awareness.” In other words, the result is fully living in the present.

Over time, Brach states that “RAIN directly de-conditions the habitual ways in which you resist your moment-to-moment experience” and helps to make these patterns less compulsive. By responding differently, you can create new neuron connections, emotional patterns and gradually change your problem behavior.

If you truly want to change, then you must relax your current patterns of thinking, feeling and reacting. Self-awareness and self-observation, combined with acknowledging and releasing emotions, are your tools to become an emotionally mature person and, as a result, a better and happier leader.

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