Do You Control Your Anger, or Does It Control You?


“It’s not personal . . . It’s strictly business.” Michael Corleone’s infamous line from the Godfather is often repeated in executive suites. It’s usually meant as a way for angry executives to rationalize their inappropriate behavior. However, when executives use this excuse, they risk forfeiting their ability to lead.

After twenty-five years of working with CEOs and senior leaders, I have found that all business is personal. Companies are led by people, staffed by people and provide products and services to people – therefore, businesses are profoundly influenced by the emotions and personalities of those people.

Moreover, I have found that all high performing executives share at least one personality trait: a deep and abiding passion for what they do. When things are running smoothly, this passion can produce motivation, energy and innovation to drive their company forward. But when things aren’t going so well, that passion can manifest itself as unproductive, even destructive anger that can hamper their company’s people and performance.

Anger is a sign, not a sin
Anger is a natural emotion that arises when something we care deeply about is threatened. But it is not anger itself that is the problem, it is its uncontrolled expression that poses the greatest challenge for many executives.

“Leadership is about others, not about you.”

One of the tenets we, at the O’Brien Group, teach our clients is that when you lose control, you have made the situation all about you and your anger. When you do that, you are no longer providing leadership to your organization. Leadership is about others, not you.

Instead, we work with executives to teach them how to have their anger instead of allowing it to have them.

Name, claim and reframe
The first step in learning to dance with any emotion especially anger and still lead effectively, is having self-awareness.

Pay attention to when you feel yourself becoming angry. What is being threatened? Is someone breaking a promise to you that will cause you to break a promise to others? Has someone compromised a value or principle?

Often when people become angry it is a reflection of one of their own faults or insecurities. For example, if Bob continually misses deadlines, and his tardiness causes you to miss your own deadlines, you may subconsciously fear you could become labeled “undependable” as well.

These are understandable fears. To keep them from overwhelming you, first pause and recognize that you are becoming angry. Then, remind yourself that it’s OK for you to feel this way – it’s natural to recoil when something you care deeply about is threatened.

The key to keeping control over your anger is what you do next. Will you explode into an uncontrolled rage, causing your peers to become defensive or alienated? Or will you intentionally choose to express it in a more constructive way?

Showing your anger can help you make progress, but only if you can do so in a constructive way.

Expressing your anger constructively
The best way to reframe your anger is to ask yourself: “How can I express my anger in a way that leads us through the breakdown?”

In some circumstances, that might mean calmly telling someone how angry you are with them and enrolling them in solving the problem. For instance, instead of yelling at Bob for missing another deadline, explore with Bob why he misses deadlines in the first place. Sometimes, showing your anger is useful in letting people know this is a serious situation and they need to do something different, and do it now!

The next time you begin to feel angry, try to understand your emotion and think about it differently. Realize that it is natural to be upset, and that it is merely a display of your passion for your work when what you care about is threatened. But also understand that when your actions are all about you and your anger, you have given up your chance to lead.