Effective leadership requires self-awareness and emotional regulation. All leaders have two sides of themselves - the rational, thoughtful self that makes considered choices, and the impulsive, reactive self driven by raw emotion. Great leaders recognize these two selves, observe them in real-time, and make deliberate choices to respond from their thoughtful, rational side, rather than reactively.
This allows great leaders to be in control of themselves and the situation, rather than controlled by their emotions. Great leaders notice their emotions, question their assumptions, and take responsibility for their behaviors. By doing so, they can avoid impulsive overreactions and poor decisions that undermine their leadership.
The Two Selves
Within every leader are two selves - the rational self and the impulsive self:
The Rational Self: This self is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking and decision making. When operating from this self, a leader is measured, thoughtful, and capable of making deliberate choices. Their actions come from a place of reason rather than raw emotion.
The Impulsive Self: This self is controlled by the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions. When operating from this self, a leader is reactive, rash, and frustrated. Their actions come from a place of impulse rather than reason.
Recognizing the Two Selves in Real Time
The key is for leaders to recognize when these two selves show up in real-time situations. This self-awareness allows leaders to consciously choose how to respond.
There are several indicators that can help a leader identify when their impulsive self is taking over:
Strong negative emotions arising, like impatience, frustration, or anger
A compulsion to dig in one's heels and defend their position
An absolute conviction that they are right
An urge to take immediate action based on their emotions
Strategies for Responding Deliberately
Once a leader notices their impulsive self showing up, they can employ strategies to engage their rational self and respond deliberately:
Label the Emotions: Putting a name to the emotions creates psychological distance and self-control. Recognizing "I am feeling impatient" rather than just feeling impatience allows a leader to reflect before reacting.
Watch for Stubbornness: Noticing an instinct to dig in heels or defend a position indicates the impulsive self trying to take over. A leader can pause and consider other perspectives.
Ask "What Else Could Be True?": This question counteracts the tendency towards confirmation bias when the impulsive self takes over. By considering other perspectives, a leader can respond rationally.
Take Responsibility: Rather than blaming others, a leader can reflect on their own responsibility in the situation and focus on what they can control - their own behavior and response.
Examples of Thoughtful Leadership
Consider a few examples that demonstrate how great leaders recognize their two selves and respond deliberately:
Diffusing Employee Frustration: When an employee expresses anger about a new policy, a reactive leader may become defensive and dig in their heels. A thoughtful leader pauses, recognizes their own rising frustration, and calmly listens to understand the employee's perspective. They then explain the rationale for the policy change without judgment.
Handling Critical Feedback: Upon receiving negative feedback, an impulsive leader might lash out at the critic or dismiss the feedback entirely. A thoughtful leader breathes through the initial emotional reaction, thanks the critic, and reflects on what there is to learn from the perspective.
Controlling Impatience: As a deadline approaches, a leader may feel rising panic and urgency. A reactive leader expresses impatience by pressuring the team. A thoughtful leader notices their anxiety, reframes the urgency as enthusiasm, and motivates the team positively.
By developing self-awareness and the capacity to recognize their two selves in real-time, leaders can respond thoughtfully and deliberately, rather than impulsively and reactively. Key practices include noticing emotions, watching for stubbornness, questioning assumptions, and taking responsibility. With reflection and experience, great leaders strengthen their ability to override their impulses and act rationally for the greater good. This thoughtful leadership builds credibility, earns respect, and drives results.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.