Leadership coaching for emotional agility
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
In this post, I illustrate from personal experience a practical approach to developing Emotional Agility, as outlined by Susan David and Christina Congleton in the Harvard Business Review (November 2013). I also highlight the potential value of coaching in supporting the translation of this theory into a sustainable, personal practice.
According to David and Congleton, the prevailing wisdom says that negative thoughts and feelings have no place at the office. But that goes against basic biology. All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt, and fear. People who are emotionally agile are able to approach their inner experiences in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way rather than buying into or trying to suppress them.
Their recommended practices for emotional agility are:
Recognise your patterns
Label your thoughts and emotions
Act on your values
By way of illustration, I found my first leadership role emotionally challenging from the outset. I had assumed this was due mainly to my own inexperience, and the difficult history and dynamics of the team. However, a pattern emerged indicating there were some members of the team for whom I could never be good enough. I was struggling to come to terms with this and began looking for a new role. I also started working with a leadership coach who helped me understand my emotional dependence on trying to make things okay for others, as well as appreciate the transient and potentially informative nature of the associated thoughts and feelings. Over time, I learned how to respond with a more open attitude, paying attention and letting myself experience them. I did this in the belief that it would be beneficial for my organisation, and my own development. This has proved to be the case, as I am now able to feel genuinely calm and respond thoughtfully in the most challenging of situations.
I offer this personal account as encouragement to those of you who may be finding aspects of your role emotionally challenging and feeling unsure about how you will cope, let alone thrive. At the outset of my professional life, I did not have the conceptual framework of Emotional Agility. However, I can now reflect on how this approach informed my ongoing practice and development in some challenging leadership roles. Although I am still subject to the same kinds of internal criticism, doubt and fear that most of us are, I am much more able to recognise and learn from them, rather than be driven by and/or react to them. Aside from the value of my coaches helping develop my self-awareness and self-management, I also greatly valued their support during the most difficult of times. The sense of not having to face these leadership challenges alone gave me the strength and courage to stay open and continue to grow. I am now pleased to be offering this support to others on their leadership journey.