Look beyond passion, temper excitement with discernment

Look beyond passion, temper excitement with discernment

It’s commonly believed that a child having a temper tantrum is out of control.
But Mark Flinn, a widely respected anthropologist, has debunked this belief with hard evidence. Using cortisol samples to measure anxiety levels of flailing kids, Flinn discovered that during tantrums, 88 percent of children do not show significant anxiety increases. It’s a good bet that parents everywhere are being faked out by relatively lucid kids who look out of control.
Flinn’s study proves that we can’t always believe what we see with our own eyes.
A similar hallucination overtakes leaders who believe passion is the key to success.

The passion prescription
The passion prescription-the popular idea that enthusiasm for one’s work always produces a favorable outcome-has become the new god that cannot be questioned. Because it’s part of my job to question the unquestionable, I sometimes say to leaders, "Alcoholics are passionate about booze, so does that mean it’s smart to get drunk?"
While emotional intensity might be an ingredient in most achievement recipes, the truth is that anyone can get excited about a vision, project or opportunity. The best leaders are able to temper and direct their adrenaline into productive outcomes. That’s the hard part.
The distinction between passion and clear direction calls to mind D.H. Lawrence’s poem, "Fidelity," in which he sublimely contrasts love (like a delicate flower, it quickly fades) and fidelity (like a hardened gem, it lasts for eons). Love feels great, but fidelity sustains.
It would take a calculator to count the number of passionate leaders I’ve known whose excitement was misplaced or short-lived. Unbridled enthusiasm resembles a powerful engine with no steering wheel, supplying raw but rudderless energy.
Companies and institutions are filled with passionate leaders who have duped themselves into believing that zest can replace clarity. Unregulated excitement sentences a leader to mediocrity. To be healthy, passion requires three "supplements": discernment, focus and persistence.

Discernment is called for when there are no easy answers to a pressing problem. Take these examples:

  • Many of my clients must deal with the mixed blessing of an arrogant salesperson who consistently brings in more new business than anyone else, or a technical genius who does not relate well to other staff members. What should a leader do when a talented direct report has an attitude or character problem? Do you confront such individuals and risk losing them, or keep their talent and tolerate their disruptiveness?

  • Most business owners want their businesses to grow, but their passion for growth can get them into trouble. Undeterred enthusiasm can blind instead of guide. During an unstable economic period, should a business lie low and wait for danger to pass, or take the risk of pushing forward to outpace the competition?

  • When each of two or three successor candidates has strengths and weaknesses, with none possessing the ideal qualifications, does the current leader look outside the organization or gamble on one of the internal candidates? If the latter, which one?

Such no-easy-answer challenges invite a leader to put passion on a leash and begin carefully sorting through the complexities to arrive at the best possible course of action. This discernment process includes attending to gut, heart and emotion signals and, importantly, a logical weighing of pros and cons. It’s a process that takes time and often involves the counsel of objective outsiders to reduce blind spots.

Once the discernment process has yielded a clear course of action, focus becomes paramount.
For an excitement junkie, staying on track with a direction offers all the appeal of watching weeds grow. Developing the courage to trust one’s decision can override what feels like a plodding and tedious path to progress.
Along the way, the willingness to say no can be a leader’s greatest ally. Saying no means:  

  • Deleting data unrelated to one’s direction.
  • Refusing attractive opportunities that would divert attention.
  • Questioning unproductive wandering.
  • Recognizing when the direction has been lost and making a course correction.

Leaders who can’t say no usually turn out to be people pleasers who care more about acceptance and approval than progress.

Not long ago, I asked a seasoned marriage counselor, "In your 40 years of working with couples, what, if anything, explains why some challenging marriages make it and others don’t?"
Without hesitation, he said, "There are many factors, but the couples who make it just seem to have more persistence. They are people who won’t quit."
In my experience, stamina is highly undervalued precisely because it lacks glitter and sizzle. Despite its stigma of boredom, outlasting a problem might be better than attacking it with passion.
No one has figured out a foolproof for-mula for stamina, but one of the important ingredients is the maintenance of healthy relationship connections with one’s spouse, children, extended family, friends and key work colleagues. Some call this emotional conditioning, a parallel to physical strength-building.
Fostering calm family relationships grounds a leader’s thinking and behavior. Focused confidence increases. Energy for persistence is optimized. In contrast, participating in chronic family tension-for example, choosing not to speak to a sibling or refusing to take a stand in a marriage-saps energy and endurance.
Although adrenaline has seemingly become the new societal drug of choice, well-connected, emotionally conditioned leaders usually cross the finish line long after their passion-possessed competitors have faded or collapsed en route.
I’m not suggesting that passion be tossed. But moderating excitement with discernment, focus and persistence engages both head and heart in leadership. The combination of enthusiasm and clarity is a high-achieving potion.
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].

12/7/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].