The emotionally enabled leader – lessons from aviation

Australians hardly have a reputation for timidity and over-politeness. More the opposite, frankly.  And this is found to be one of the reasons for their remarkable record in flight safety. Unhappy about duty hours and fatigue? Barge into the chief pilot’s office and tell him face-to-face expletives not deleted. The Australian reputation for directness, even brashness, and lack of awe for authority serves them well in aviation.  It means that problems are raised quickly, discussed openly, resolved collectively.

Intercultural researchers would call this ‘low power distance’, typical of Australia, Denmark, Holland and Israel for example. High power distance cultures are typical of many Asian and African traditional societies. These high power distance cultures, where it can be unthinkable to challenge bosses and deference to age and authority are deeply-rooted, can create major challenges to safety, ethics and efficiency, especially in crises or fast evolving situations.

Too much deference is a deadly thing.  Information doesn’t flow fast enough. It’s filtered by over-politeness. Bosses are expected to have the best answers, rather than better questions, and may be less likely to ask for the benefit of other’s insights and far less likely to be challenged.

To have self-knowledge means to have a conscious understanding of ourselves and our styles, without judgement, in relation to others.  And it goes further than styles – to the capacity to observe, to acknowledge and to allow for our own emotional states.  In fact we need to be emotionally enabled.

Both business and aviation have changed.  They are both more complex. The consequences are higher. Things happen faster. Both intellectually and emotionally, more is demanded.

You don’t want to fly with a stressed, emotionally disturbed – emotionally disabled -pilot. Any more than you want to work for, or be, a stressed and emotionally disabled leader. Both are dangerous.

As the US Federal Aviation Authority says:

Certain emotionally upsetting events, including a serious argument, death of a family member, separation or divorce, loss of job, and financial catastrophe, can render a pilot unable to fly an aircraft safely. The emotions of anger, depression, and anxiety from such events not only decrease alertness but also may lead to taking risks that border on self-destruction. Any pilot who experiences an emotionally upsetting event should not fly until satisfactorily recovered from it.

And should you be taking the big decisions in your business in the same state?

The emotionally enabled pilot or leader, on the other hand, works to a simple pneumonic, I’M SAFE, to monitor their effectiveness:

I – Illness.  How am I feeling?

M – Medication. What are the effects of any medicines I’m taking?

– Stress.  How is my stress level? Am I working on a stress reduction methods, like exercise, meditation, relaxing hobbies or music etc?

A – Alcohol. Or other drugs. Are they helping, really, or dulling your perceptions?

F – Fatigue.  Sleep. Sufficient breaks from intellectual work to allow your brain to refresh?

E – Emotion. What are you feeling now?  Are you aware of your feelings or simply sublimating them or in denial?  How is your emotional state affecting you and others around you?

Emotionally enabled leaders simply get more done, get more out of others, at a higher level and avoid more disasters.

In a more complex, higher stakes, pacier and innovative workplace, more of our higher-level capabilities are needed. We need our imagination as well as our intellect, our initiative as well as our obedience, our passion as well as our diligence.

These higher-level faculties come easier with emotional availability.  A good test is to ask yourself: ‘How much of me is welcome at work?’ And if the answer is ‘not much and not the best bits’ then you’re unlikely to be able to work more effectively with complex situations and with creativity.

If you can become an emotionally enabled leader you can manage and be conscious of not only your own emotional states but also those of others. This doesn’t mean becoming a saint or changing your personality. It just means gaining better control through understanding, and heading for better results. You’ll develop your emotional literacy, expression and scope, with all the benefits that this can bring to you, your colleagues, your work and most likely, to your family too.

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