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To Earn Employees’ Trust, Leaders Need to Be GrownUps

It’s essential to manage your emotions and serve the people you lead

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BY Alison Davis - 11 May 2018

To Earn Employees' Trust, Leaders Need to Be GrownUps

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The CEO was having a tantrum. While it's true that he hadn't thrown himself on the floor kicking and screaming like a two-year-old, it was a tantrum just the same.

He went on a long rant about the way no one had taken responsibility for a certain problem, taking a breath only long enough to ask pointed questions of the two senior leaders who were the object of his wrath. The CEO sputtered. He fumed. And when he was done, he abruptly left the conference room, banging the door shut as he departed.

Lucky me; I got to witness this bad behavior, along with three or four staffers who were supposed to make a presentation (that never happened). And you can bet that, within minutes, news about the CEO's tantrum had spread across the entire company.

"He did it again," muttered one VP to his colleague later that afternoon.

"Sometimes I think the boss is a bit unhinged," replied the colleague.

"I don't think so," said the VP. "He's just a big baby."

(Note: this is a true story, not based on the New York Times report that the Chief of the Homeland Security almost resigned after the President had a tirade yesterday during a Cabinet meeting. But perhaps Mr. Trump should read this column.)

Leaders cause so many problems when they don't act like adults that it's difficult to know what to address first.

I'll start with this insightful observation from my Inc. colleague Marcel Schwantes: "Top-down bosses who spread fear are notorious for killing intrinsic motivation. And when that happens, good-employees-turned-order-takers stop exercising the very traits employers wish to see in their people--that of proactive, creative, self-starters."

And here's Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who writes that not being adult means "neglecting to take on, each day, the maturity, grace and self-discipline that are expected of adults and part of their job. That job is to pattern adulthood for those coming up, who are looking, always, for How To Do It--how to be a fully formed man, a fully grown woman."

Leaders who don't act like grown-ups, writes Noonan, are unable to "fully reckon with your size, not because it is small but because it is big. I see more people trembling under the weight of who they are."

I agree with Noonan that the "big baby" problem often arises because a leader doesn't understand how much everyone else in the organization pays close attention to every word the leader says and every action the leader takes. When a leader even makes a small gesture, it has a big impact. So a slammed door reverberates through the whole organization.

Part of the problem is when leaders don't remember that their role is not to rule but to serve. Every leader should repeatedly read Robert K. Greenleaf's famous 1970 essay, "The Servant as Leader." The concept is simple: A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and the well-being of the people he or she leads.

The idea of servant-leader, writes Greenleaf, "begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous?"

Schwantes writes that a key attribute of mature leaders who serve their people is self-control. These leaders "identify their feelings and exercise self-awareness before acting on their emotions. They are aware of when negative emotions happen so they can alter the course for a better response the next time." And "they are intentional about change, especially changing their mindset to 'this is who I choose to be' rather than maintaining 'this is who I am.'"

Every leader needs to ask himself or herself some tough questions to determine whether you're truly a developed adult, advises Schwantes: "Do others see you as dependable and accountable for your actions? Do people feel safe in your presence? Are you often seen as influential? These are trademarks of a powerfully humble leader."

I'll give Noonan the last word about this topic--advice that every leader (especially those in Washington, D.C..) should heed: "More than ever, the adults have to rise to the fore and set the template for what is admirable. If we don't, those who follow us will be less admirable even than us, and those after them less admirable still. That would be a tragedy, wouldn't it?"