A little known secret to leadership is that great leaders tap into their dark side (think Bill Clinton), while wimpy leaders don’t, or don’t have a dark side to tap into (think Jimmy Carter).
The challenge is how to tap your dark side without being consumed by it (think Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer or Darth Vader). Here are some ways to use your dark side to sharpen your leadership skills:
1. Get mad at something that matters.
Martin Luther King, Jr. got mad. So did Lincoln, and Churchill, and Reagan. It’s worth taking a moment, right now, and surveying your company to see what irks you, and better yet, pisses you off.
2. Think and get mad at the same time.
When people get white hot angry, the part of their brain that controls the fight-or-flight response has hijacked their ability to think rationally. Anger is helpful, blind rage can be disastrous. To avoid unthinking anger, ask yourself what value is being violated that is making you so upset. This action forces in rational thought, and lessens the chance that you’ll say something you regret. Dr. King got mad about the lack of justice and equality. Lincoln got angry at people trying to break up national unity. Churchill was upset with naïve politicians who ignored the truth about the Nazi’s actions. When Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” you could see the passion that only comes from tapping anger about the violation of one of his core values–freedom.
3. Direct anger, don’t wallow in it or intellectualize it.
There are two major pitfalls with anger: swimming it, and thinking about it. Staying angry without directing it makes people passive aggressive over time. Another way to say “passive aggressive” is “bad at leadership.”
President Obama spent much of 2010 showing us the other pitfall: getting angry and then explaining the source of the anger in webs of logic no one cares about. Anger is powerful because it cuts through clutter. So get to its source (the violated core value) and then use clarity in moving to a solution.
The most important way to channel feelings of being upset is in getting others to declare that they won’t accept the situation as it is, because it violates a value you and they share.
4. Channel anger into a commitment to fix the problem.
You need a simple method of going from values to a robust plan to make a difference in a short period of time. There are many free resources on how to do this. One of the better ones comes from the research in Tribal Leadership: a 90 day strategy map.
5. Form a trusted relationship so you don’t get lost in the dark side.
Anger is a useful place to visit, but you don’t want to live there. People who fly off the handle aren’t trusted, just as people who always respond in a Vulcan manner aren’t respected. It’s worth noting that Obama spent months in 2010 coming across as calm and collected when people were outraged, over the BP spill, the lack of new jobs, and the souring deficit. He showed directed anger when he bucked his own party late in the year and compromised on tax cuts to get an extension of unemployment benefits, and the result was progress on legislation and an uptick in his popularity. Make sure you have trusted friends to make sure you don’t get mad too often, or stay mad without a sense of direction. Just as important, make sure you have friends who don’t let you stay a Vulcan too long.
— Dave Logan (from a piece originally published Jan. 5, 2011 on BNet.com)
Special thanks to Dave for letting us republish his column. He's a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He has served on the USC faculty since 1996, and teaches leadership and management at the Marshall School of Business. From 2001-2004, he was Associate Dean of Executive Education. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997. The firm consults with dozens of Fortune 500 companies, major nonprofits, and governments worldwide. He has a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School at USC. follow Dave on Twitter and Facebook.