The secret to leadership — breaking habitual patterns, controlling emotional states come with self-management 

What if you knew the secret of being a great leader and living a happier life? It’s right in front of you and asking if you would invest the time and effort needed to change.

That secret is self-management, and it involves a two-step process:

  • First, you need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself, including 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 they don’t overwhelm and control you.

Obviously, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. 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 deep and dynamic map of the ego. There are other tools available. It’s important for you to find one that resonates with you.

Managing yourself

Learning to manage yourself starts with self-observation, a process of neutrally and compassionately watching yourself. It 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 senior 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 to release all of that pent-up emotion becomes inevitable.

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. That does not, however, help us manage ourselves. Neuroscience research 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.

Remember RAIN

Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist, describes a process she calls RAIN to manage our emotional states:

  • Recognize what is happening.
  • Allow this situation to be just as it is.
  • Investigate your inner experience with kindness.
  • Non-identification is the result of applying the first three steps; fully living in the present.

Brach states that over time, “RAIN directly deconditions 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.
Cheryl B. McMillan is the chair of Vistage International for Northeast Ohio, a leading international organizations for CEOs, presidents, business owners and senior executives.