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Leaders: Develop emotional maturity to foster excellence

Leaders: Develop emotional maturity to foster excellence

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What do you actually do in your job?
I am asked that question frequently, and it nudges me to continually clarify the essence of my work.
"I’m the president of Leadership Coaching Inc.," doesn’t offer clarity or specifics.
Here’s how I describe what I really do:
"I help leaders figure out how they can influence the people around them to calm down and grow up."
The "calm down" part draws nods of understanding. Then almost everyone asks, "What do you mean by ‘grow up’?"
That question has fueled decades of field and clinical research by some of the world’s smartest scientists. The research has yielded valuable insights for organizational leaders.
"Growing up" means maximizing one’s emotional maturity. Think of maturity as a powerful nutrient that feeds healthy relationships and clear decision-making.
Emotionally mature leaders express four critical abilities. They:

Take full responsibility for self;
Think without reacting;
Connect without "fusing"; and
Take "responsible responsibility" for others.

Full responsibility for self
I notice that less mature business leaders spend a lot of time blaming-blaming the government, their spouses, their employees and, yes, blaming themselves.
More mature leaders replace blame with responsibility.
When a crisis or challenge occurs in a mature leader’s business or family, she looks for her own part in it while carefully considering, without accusation, the parts others are playing.
When a mature college graduate faces confusion about his future, he doesn’t expect others to tell him what he should be doing with his life. Instead, he develops a plan for increasing self-awareness and investigating possibilities.
Taking responsibility requires self-awareness.
More immature leaders tend toward shallow thinking, impulsive decisions and superficial conversations. It’s not simply that they don’t know themselves; it’s that they don’t think about knowing themselves.
In contrast, emotionally mature leaders work diligently and continuously on self-awareness: "Why am I so quick to bail others out?" "What produced that reaction in me this morning?" "How is my behavior inconsistent with my beliefs?"
At decision time, mature leaders value principles over feelings and progress over comfort. When they make a mistake, they acknowledge it without fanfare and move on.

Thinking without reacting
The pioneering clinical research of psychiatrist Murray Bowen M.D. proposed that individuals of less maturity make feelings more important than facts. The popular language of business leaders reveals this bias:
"Just follow your feelings."
"I don’t feel comfortable saying that to my boss."
"I have a good feeling about our strategic direction."
Emotionally immature leaders seek to preserve their own good feelings and comfort at any cost. Faced with discomfort, they whine, complain, avoid or wish others would change.
Mature leaders, on the other hand, consider emotions as part of a broader thought process. They recognize the importance of thinking and acting despite discomfort.
One of the distinguishing features of mature leaders is their higher capacity for emotional self-regulation.
Their ability to consider reasonable options without over-reacting inspires group confidence in their leadership.

Connecting without ‘fusing’
One company I work with avoids demoting underperforming leaders because "They’ve been with us for years." This is a good example of emotional fusion-loyalty and closeness at the expense of honesty and good judgment.
Many family and business problems could be avoided if members were able to maintain healthy connection without emotional neediness.
Emotionally mature leaders stay connected by maintaining regular one-on-one contact, appropriately disclosing information about themselves and cultivating candor and depth in relationships.
But they also realize that connection can go too far: When leaders become emotionally dependent on the approval of their employees or children, they begin to lose separateness and objectivity. It’s common for such leaders to value personal closeness over what’s best for the group.
Mature leaders are better able to maintain healthy emotional separation while still staying connected. Cultivating this tricky balance can strengthen teams, business partnerships and marriages.

‘Responsible responsibility’ for others
Sometimes people face genuine hardships that warrant outside help. Responding to the real needs of family members, employees and communities lies at the heart of effective leadership.
Not uncommonly, though, employees and family members, including children, ask for help when help is not necessary.
Being able to distinguish between real need and fake need requires emotional maturity.
Less mature leaders tend toward two extremes: "bleeding hearts," who feed irresponsibility by automatically assisting without assessing, and "hard hearts," people incapable of compassion who refuse to respond to the real setbacks of others.
More mature leaders understand the reality of suffering and respond generously to real need. At the same time, they don’t solve or fix problems that belong to others. Instead, they coach others to take responsibility for thinking the problem through and deciding on a course of action. Mature leaders reduce helplessness and promote confidence.

Smart may not equal mature
Leaders should be wary of assuming that being smart is the same as being grown up.
Most of us can identify intelligent individuals who exhibit low maturity: the aeronautical engineer who tells everyone else what to do, the tax accountant who insists on paying her 27-year-old’s living expenses, the self-made tycoon who can’t handle a long-term relationship.
When leaders choose the long, steady path of higher self-awareness and maturity, their organizations will naturally follow suit. Whether a leader’s domain is a business, a family or a nation, that leader’s degree of emotional maturity might be the most reliable predictor of group excellence.

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

12/9/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].