Twenty-three years ago, one of my employees – I’ll call him Dale – asked for a private meeting. Dale was serious and bookish and had very strong opinions. His work was fastidious. He rarely socialized with colleagues, but he was impeccable in his commitments to others. And he was skilled at his job.
As I closed the door to our huddle room, he came straight to the point, “Joseph, I’d like to offer you some feedback.”
I had expected a different agenda. But given my professions about candor in our culture, I was somewhat trapped. “Please do,” I said cautiously.
“Joseph, you are arrogant and difficult to work with. Your first inclination is to shoot down criticisms from me and others. That makes it impossible for me to do my job as an editor.” And with that, he was done. He looked at me calmly.
I compressed an hour’s worth of emotions and thoughts into mere seconds. I felt waves of shame, resentment, and anger. In my mind, I made a frenzied inventory of Dale’s defects – as though assembling a case to rebut an aggressive prosecutor. I fantasized briefly about firing him. My chest felt tight. My breathing was shallow. Through it all, I did my best to fake a composure I clearly did not feel. My tacit logic was that confessing hurt would telegraph weakness.
An overwhelming majority of the bad decisions I’ve made in my life were impulsive. They weren’t errors of faulty logic or ineffective deliberation. They were avoidable mistakes in moments when I was unwilling or unable to manage potent negative emotions. Likewise, the most consequential progress I’ve made in my development as a leader has been not in professional but in emotional competence.