TOP BUSINESS LEADERSHIP STORY OF 2020 – From Toddler to Leadership Behavior

Leadership Trait #3 Self-Management

by Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

What does it mean to “self-manage”? Think of a toddler having a meltdown in public. It’s not pretty to watch. And we know there’s an easy cure – give the toddler some sleep, food, or a long ride in the car. In that way, parents manage the toddler’s emotional control for him or her. Toddlers are too young to manage their own emotions. Self-management is a skill to be learned in life as a sign of maturity. One researcher defines self-management as “the ability to prioritize goals, decide what must be done, and be accountable to complete the necessary actions”. Not too many toddlers are capable of these skills.

As leaders mature in their roles and begin to gain more responsibility, self-management becomes key to followers taking their leaders seriously. What if a “leader” can’t articulate priorities, take responsibility when things go wrong and can’t wrap up big projects? Who would follow that lead?

What if a “leader” flew off the handle, used profanity and raised his/her voice in an angry tone when things didn’t go his/her way? Isn’t that toddler behavior? I can imagine followers thinking “oh here comes another meltdown!”

Recently, a story emerged about Meg Whitman back when she was CEO of eBay, losing her cool. She allegedly yelled at an employee, who attempted to prep her for an interview. Whitman proceeded to shove the individual. As the CEO of eBay, Whitman was penalized through intense media scrutiny and a six-figure settlement with the employee. However, she was never fired, all due to her position in the company. Most of us would never have been so fortunate, especially in today’s world of work. But still, a penalty had to be paid.

Instead of losing your temper as Whitman did and allowing emotions to “hijack” you, when you purposefully exercise self-management, you can step back, pause, and assess what you are feeling. Then, you can better reflect what your resulting  behavior will look like. You can choose to consciously  manage your emotions instead of permitting the emotions to manage you. The scientific name for this loss of control is “amygdala hijack”, coined by Daniel Goleman, the father of Emotional Intelligence. An amygdala hijack is a primordial emotional response that is “immediate, overwhelming, and out of proportion to the actual stimulus”  because some event has triggered a charged “emotional threat”. Yes, a lack of self-management sends us straight into fight or flight syndrome. We act as if we are running away from a saber-toothed tiger.

Self-management is one of the key skills of emotional intelligence. Someone with high emotional awareness manifests self-management by being composed, relaxed, and unflustered. He or she doesn’t engage in bantering or repartee and is not easily provoked. If attempts are made to purposefully provoke the person, he or she graciously backs out of the conversation. A good example is Tom Brady. Brady always responds appropriately: he smiles a lot when in front of the camera and is serious when he needs to be (after a major loss). Brady is not easily provoked. He shows himself as very relaxed and even a little aloof, if a friendly aloofness is possible.

For example, in May 2017 Brady’s wife, Giselle, told an interviewer that her husband suffered a concussion during New England’s play-off games prior to the Super Bowl. When Brady himself was asked about her comments, his deflection was carefully worded. “She’s there every day. She knows when I’m sore, she knows when I’m tired, she knows when I get hit. We drive home together [from games]. But she also knows how well I take care of myself. She’s a very concerned wife and very loving.” He didn’t outright deny the concussion, but he deflected the comments to how much his wife cares about him. When you hear Brady’s interviews with the media, you can hear the careful word choices and measured tone of voice that quells any probing or provocative questioning.

Self-management is a personal choice. It’s something to be practiced every day. It’s important to manage emotions, to think before speaking, to consider surroundings, and other people in the room.

Choosing how to respond requires preparation and practice, as in Brady’s case. Self-control can be learned. “What can I choose to do that is within my control, to move my[self] forward?” is a great quote to remember from the book,  The Complete Leader. When your head is fogged by feelings, you are likely to say or do things you wouldn’t say or do normally. There’s an old Dutch saying: “Trust comes on foot but leaves on horseback”. When we fly off the handle, as did Meg Whitman, we break our trust with our constituency and consequences happen.

And who could deny the leadership example of Jack Welch, former CEO of GE?

“You’ve got to look in the mirror every morning and be totally self-effacing,” he says. “Give yourself a critical review.” When he lost his temper, he fixed it.  “I knew when I was a jerk,” he says. “I came in the next day and apologized in front of everyone.”


Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, PCC, SHRM-SCP – Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. 401-742-1965;