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Are You Avoiding Emotions as a Leader?

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

A few months ago, I shared with my sister (who is a massage therapist) what I feel sometimes when I leave particularly tense and stressful conversations with teams. I shared that while I know to anticipate the tension, and while there are even times I can now intuitively feel a certain level of tension in a conversation before I even enter the space, I still struggle to release the tension from my body after I leave the conversation. 


I described this as a feeling of at some point in the conversation–it feels like an invisible force places an invisible weighted blanket around my back, neck, and shoulders. As if, there is a layer of other peoples’ emotion and they are swirling around me, looking for a way into my body, desperately trying to transfer.


Now I don’t necessarily feel this weighing down happening during the session, I explained. But I can definitely feel it after. When I’m driving home, or even walking to my car. At times, my right ear will turn bright red and super hot–and I know whenever that happens my body is sending me a warning sign that: Something. Is. Up. 


And this whole thing I find to be incredibly interesting, and I try to take a curious perspective about it. Rather than push away what emotions may feel uncomfortable, I try to let them surface a little, all the while trying to feel around for which are my emotions, and which are ones from others in the conversation that are making their way into me. 


Pretty wild, right?


My therapist-sister suggested that I find a way to ground myself during these moments of tensions in meetings. All I had to do (she offered) was plant both of my feet on the ground. I realized that often, I’m sitting at a table with a group or with a teacher with one foot over the other. To ground myself would require the simple act of placing both feet underneath.


The concept of grounding is practiced and discussed more widely among therapy circles than in education circles, and while my sister offered one technique to help me ground my body, there are so many more we can/should explore. According to the University of New Hampshire’s Psychological and Counseling Services center, grounding is, “a self-soothing skill to use when you are having a bad day or dealing with a lot of stress, overwhelming feelings, and/or intense anxiety. Grounding is a technique that helps keep you in the present and helps reorient you to the here-and-now and to reality.”


To be grounded as a leader is to have the ability to both name and normalize our emotions and also provide ourselves ways to process the emotions in healthy ways. When we do not process or name our emotions–or worse–when we take on the emotions of others–we get that weighted blanket feeling. Shoot. Our whole leadership experience can begin to feel like one, big never-ending weighted blanket. 


That’s not okay. It’s normal, unfortunately, but it’s not okay. 


This whole thing–every single bit of transformational leadership, collective efficacy, team creation–this whole thing starts and stops in you. All that you want to accomplish for yourself, your school, yor teams, your teachers, your students, their families, your community–it all starts and stops within you. 


If you will, picture that for a moment. 


What would it mean if you truly believed in and embraced this idea? If this belief became reality? How does this feel? What would it look like in action and practice? Do you even want this to be true?


Our emotional response, as well as our ability to process others’ emotional responses, start and stop within us. By noticing and naming our reactions, we can then seek ways to process our feelings–and this does have to be done with words. Grounding techniques, like planting both feet on the ground or naming five things you see in the room, or tapping techniques, or breathing exercises–all of these can help us process the emotions and remain steady. 


For any meaningful change to occur–let alone collective, systemic change across a building or a district–there must be a sense of process, stability, and predictability. According to Maslow, our basic motivational need is physiological (food and clothing) and our second basic motivational need is safety; the third is a need for belonging; the fourth is achievement and the fifth is self-actualization. I reference Maslow’s hierarchy, not as the end-all-be-all of understanding human needs, but more so as a common starting place for many of us. Authors Dr. Floyd Clobb and John Krownapple reference Maslow’s hierarchy in their book, Belonging Through a Culture of Dignity, and explain that for students (and staff) to focus on achievement, they must first have an unquestionable sense of true belonging and dignity in their environments (ie, schools). 


However, you do not start at the belonging step–so that’s not actually what I mean by transformation starting and stopping inside of you. First, you actually need to take a step back to safety, to our brains, and what happens to each of us when we do not feel safe as we move through said change. 


If leaders seek to create authentic, collaborative teacher teams, change is needed.  And, since there is no growth (or change) without discomfort, guess what that means? I cannot tell you when the discomfort with change will happen, but I can tell you that it will happen. This is certain. Anticipate it. Steady yourself for it. Ground yourself for it. 


When you lead through organizational change in your school, your first priority is to fully trust yourself and your ability to create the steady that your staff will need. You must be able to ground yourself if you want to be able to ground your staff. This is what I mean by transformation starting and stopping with you. You cannot create a sense of safety and steady for your staff, if you get stuck in your own feelings of uncertainty, discomfort and fear. 


And, those feelings will be there. You will have questions. You will feel cautious. You may be afraid. You may feel uncomfortable with processes that you are about to put in place–and this makes you want to stop, or shift, or change expectations, or, or, or…


You are normal for feeling feelings. I know that may sound basic and unnecessary, but oh wow is it not. Many of us have been raised to ignore our emotions and to prioritize action and progress over our feelings and intuition. We have been taught to ignore our own feelings of dis-ease, to ignore warning signals and perceived threats to our health and well-being, to assume belonging and safety in the name of progress and achievement. 


You are normal for feeling feelings, and to do this work, you have to hold space for emotions–and you must start with your own. You are allowed to feel whatever emotions arise in you as you experience transformational change, and you are normal for feeling. In truth, you are human for feeling. Yeah. Let that sink in.


Integrity is the act of doing what we say we will do. It is our ability to make and keep promises. When individuals and groups experience transformation, there is a high level of uncertainty, discomfort, and feelings of general unsafety in the process. To support us through the change, our brains will seek to find stability, predictability, and certainty. We will look for patterns, seek to create routines, and work to form habits. This is precisely what our brains are designed to do–this is one of our superpowers–and this is what integrity is all about.


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