The Dynamic Range versus Static State of Leadership | The Case for Emotional Awareness and Control 

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I have been working since I was nine years old, mowing lawns, selling produce on the corner that I grew in my own garden, just to name a few of these money-making ventures; I realize multiple child labor and zoning laws were most likely broken in the process, but I was a driven young kid, and it was the 80’s. 

I had my first “real” job, receiving an actual paycheck (versus a $5 bill draped over a neighbor’s lawnmower’s handle) when I was fourteen years old and was hired to clean the YMCA on the weekends between opening and closing. Since that time, I have personally had many different managers and leaders. And over the last fifteen years as a leadership consultant, development coach, and mediator I have seen and witnessed a plethora of different leaders and leadership styles.  

A client recently asked me, “In experiencing all these different leaders, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rank the worst and best leaders and why?” 

I thought for a moment and said: 

“You know, it is not a single number for any one of them, it is a range, and furthermore, it is the spread of that range that I would use to rank them.” 

The Good: Example Range 7 to 9 

I feel very fortunate to have worked for some great leaders, none better than Billie Zakis. Billie was a seasoned leader who I supported for many years during my medical device training and development days.  

What Billie brought to the table was a combination of leadership training and skillsets + real world application and experience + the ability to manage herself and her emotions with strong reliability

The result of these three things coming together in a leader was someone who:  

  1. knew what to do. 
  2. knew how to apply it, 
  3. and had the ability to reliably manage her emotional state to not derail her relationships and success.  

Daily, Billie showed up as that 8 to 9 on that leadership scale. Again, she had been very well trained with ample experience and it showed. What truly set her apart though from most leaders was her ability to reliably be aware of and in control of her emotions. As a true people watcher, I would watch this unfold in real-time again and again. Someone in a meeting would say something, maybe completely out of line, possibly even take a jab at her or make a negative comment about her, her idea, her handling of a situation, or her leadership. I would watch this land on her, and I would see her reaction and the beginning of that dip, and she would dip for a moment down to that 7, but then came the catch and the re-center. This sometimes came accompanied by a pause or deep breath, but however she did it, I would see her catch herself and re-appear back at that 8 and 9 with only a short visit down to that 7.  

This I knew was the hallmark of a truly good leader. Of course, we all want to be or work for the leader who shows up as that 10 all the time. None the less, the reality is we are human, and in fairness and reasonability to ourselves as leaders and the leaders that serve us, the most we can hope for is someone who reliably manages the depth and duration of that dip in their emotional state and control. 

The Bad: Example Range 2 to 4 

This one makes me recall a leader from my distant past whom we will call Michael. Michael was your classic hard-nosed guy’s guy, a true HR nightmare of a leader with inappropriate comments and jokes daily. We once had to all sit in a room and watch HR videos and each sign off that we had watched them. I can still remember one of the videos had a role-play of an employee giving their manager some constructive feedback. In the video the manager thanked the employee for the feedback, and they shook hands as the manager made a commitment to do better in the future. Michael paused the video, looked at all of us and said, “You all know to never do anything like this with me, right?” We all shook our heads in agreement as we were very aware this was something we were to watch and check the box for HR, but never practice. Another Michael moment that sticks with me is when I once heard an employee who was going through a tough personal situation ask him for a mental health day to which he raised his fist and said, “I’ll give you a mental health day, get back to work!” My co-worker hung his head and walked away. 

Michael lacked leadership training and skills, and if he ever received training, he clearly had not been receptive to it or interested in applying it. His attitude was one of “he was who he was” and he was going to stay this way, manage this way, and his direct reports just had to deal with it or leave.  

As bad as he was (and he was bad) we all knew exactly who he was. He never let on he was anything other than that. In his absolute best moments, he was a 4, and in his worst, he was a 2. He fluctuated between that 2 and 4, and we all knew to never expect anything more, and as a leader he did not pretend or misrepresent that he would ever be anything more. And this brings us to “The Scary.” 

The Scary: Example Range 1 to 9 

When we see this range from 1 to 9, we know where this is going. This is the scariest for most of us direct reports, more so than even the bad leader described above.  

These are leaders who often have the training and the skillsets, in fact they may have been to the top training money can buy, worked with top professionals in the development field, and have a desk and wall full of leadership awards and certifications.  

As a direct report, we see and hear this, the invitation to share constructive feedback, take a personal day if needed, voice your opinions and constructive criticisms, and the list goes on, and one thinks, “Wow, I am in a safe place with a good leader.” 

But unfortunately, though these leaders have the know-how of great leadership, they lack reliable emotional awareness and control, so they can quickly go from that 9 who just invited us into the “tree of trust” with all the right words, to that 1 who is yelling at you and punishing you for sharing the feedback they just asked for.  

Initially these leaders are very disorienting for their direct reports, but after getting bitten a few times and experiencing the breadth of this leader’s range, they realize what they are dealing with and naturally self-protect. In my private coaching practice, I recall listening to several different clients in this scenario and they all independently would share a similar sentiment, “I have to treat them as a 1, that invitation into that 9 is a trap and I have got bitten too many times.” The takeaway is that this leader, though they have the skills and abilities of a 9, due to a consistent lack of emotional awareness and control, they will ultimately end up being treated as a 1 by their direct reports. 

I have long called this “The Tiger Woods Approach.” I was once on a plane sitting next to a sportswriter who covered the PGA during the height of Tiger’s career and success. I said, “That’s got to be amazing covering Tiger Woods!” He replied, “It’s really not, at some point early in his career Tiger got burned by the press, so he doesn’t trust us, so now no matter what question we ask him he gives us the same three answers: “Course looks good, swing feels good, I like my chances.” That’s all we get.  

‘Tiger, what do you think about Phil’s new putter?’  
‘Well, I don’t know about that, but what I do know is I was out walking the course today and the course looks really good.” 

‘Tiger, do you think Phil can give you a run for your money this weekend?” 
‘Well, I don’t know, but what I do know is my swing feels good, so I like my chances.” 

I have worked with these leaders on the receiving end of what they’ve created scratching their heads: 

“Huh, I don’t know why my team acts like this, they won’t share constructive feedback with me, they are quiet in meetings, I hear about things going on in their personal life from other leaders in the organization I thought they would have shared with me as their direct leader. I am so confused, I am doing and saying all the right things?” 

Well, I am afraid you have earned your way into “Course looks good, swing feels good, I like my chances.” response status with your team. 

There are many achievements in life that have static results. One may attain a degree for example, and that comes with a static result. They can hang that degree on their wall, put it on their resume, etc. One can complete a course or leadership journey, and again, receive a static result. They can put that certificate in a frame on their desk, update their LinkedIn profile, etc. But leadership, and how one is perceived as a leader is not static. It is a dynamic range that correlates to know-how, real-world application, and maybe most importantly how reliably one is able to manage their emotional state.