How to control your elephant: Emotional Intelligence and Self-Management

Last Wednesday, I attended a workshop, “High Impact Leadership” on Emotional Intelligence and Personal Leadership.  Hosted by MAP for Nonprofits, and presented by Christine Hammes, the workshop really brought me much closer to some tangible strategies for self-management and self-awareness.  

The book, Switch, talks about the two different motivators of humans.  There’s our rational and “automatic” parts of the brain – the rational part being our calculating and reasoning side of the brain that checks different orange juices in the grocery store for the best price per ounce; the “automatic” being the one that gets a certain brand because “that’s what we always drink”.  Switch describes the “automatic” as the elephant, a big, strong, willful creature, and the rational side being the little human that sits atop the elephant with the reins.  I love this image because it shows how the two parts of ourselves do interact and can affect the other, but also the tenuous control that the rational has over our “automatic” elephant.

In Christie’s workshop, we took a more scientific look at the role our elephant plays in our interactions with others, and how that ultimately affects our ability to practice leadership.  Our amygdala is the emotional part of our brain, our elephant, and it is the speedy responder, first on the scene.  It’s an old part of the brain that holds our flight or fight response, and is good at picking up lots of little information and then reacting quickly.  This is where we our tendency to blurt out responses in stressful or confrontational situations comes from.  Our neo-cortex is our thinking side, the part that later looks back and realizes that our reaction wasn’t the most strategic move in the given situation or where our thoughtful and paced responses come from.

The workshop was structured so we could begin to apply this knowledge to our selves right away.  We identified and discussed what it’s like when our amygdala is active, how that feels, and signs we can look for.  When we are aware of when we’re becoming “activated”, then we can learn how how to trip up that cycle so we don’t thoughtlessly react.  We talked about ways to do this, to disengage and find time to pause (a concept that I’ve discussed before here).

We learned that good leaders are not just those that are good at the technical aspects of management (budgets, plans, execution, etc.) but that we identify good leaders as those that exhibit high emotional intelligence.  (For more on emotional intelligence, see here.)  They are thoughtful in their actions and communication, they earn out trust, they recognize the various needs of their colleagues and peers, and they exhibit self-management.  What this boils down to is that good leaders are aware and can manage their own emotions and reactions and are therefore open to discerning and are in-tune with the emotions of others.

The workshop fits in so well with the fellowship training seminars, which focus on the self-awareness necessary for adaptive leadership and mindfulness as a way to nurture that self-awareness.  Emotional intelligence is (to me) the scientific brother of mindfulness, offering research-backed studies about the significant role emotional intelligence plays in relationships and leadership.  And I’m beginning to see how all these pieces weave together: the challenges of my fellowship project, the CDR assessment (see here), and the mindfulness training.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about how some of the mindfulness training through The Artist’s Way has led me back to an aspect of my life that has really been left behind and the lessons it has already begun to teach me in the vein of leadership practice.

[Correction: When originally posted, I attributed the elephant metaphor to a book called Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury.  A reader suggested that I might have meant Switch by the Heath brothers.  This version reflects that correction!]

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6 thoughts on “How to control your elephant: Emotional Intelligence and Self-Management

  1. Pingback: The Adventures of Daddy Claxton » Blog Archive » Despair = Suffering + Meaning

  2. Pingback: The Importance of Human Emotion: Why EQ is the Key to a Happy, Successful Life « mindfulconsideration

  3. Nicely put. I believe egos need to be acknowledged as uninvited participants in most relationships. This is between individuals or organizations/companies/governments. Once acknowledged, mindfulness will encourage releasing the power, fear, or attention ego is crying for, then we can move on to solutions in a collaborative rather than coercive or competitive manner.

  4. Pingback: Do you have the lucky attitude of a leader? | Common Spark*

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