Leadership tantrums seem to be more common these days, but all too often, throwing a fit makes things worse instead of better. Maybe this short story and 15 great quotes about anger can help us keep our cool and lead better when we start to feel a little hot under the collar.
I was just the messenger, but that didn’t matter. The Major was angry, and he was letting me know it at full volume, at close range, in public. I was a Captain; I had to stand there and take it.
I’ve no recollection of what the specific problem was, but in general my boss wanted something done on short notice. His boss had agreed to do it. The actual work fell to the red-faced Major directly in front of me, and he clearly wasn’t happy about it. In delivering the necessary paperwork to get the ball rolling, I unwittingly stepped into the role of verbal punching bag for his anger.
I also don’t recall the Major’s exact words, but I remember his leadership tantrum as a kind of verbal sand-blasting: lots of hot stinging words indiscriminately spewing out. Much of what he said was exaggerated or uninformed, but he was clearly not open to correction from a junior officer at the moment.
What I do remember was his red face, the veins bulging on his neck and forehead. The high volume. There was also a little bit of spittle that formed on the left side of his lower lip.
As his ranting went on, his words faded incomprehensibly into the background, like Charlie Brown’s teacher, but at max volume. My mind began to wander.
“I wonder if he treats his own people this way.”
“Is this just a show he’s putting on for their benefit?“
“I hope that spit blob on his lip doesn’t fly out and hit me.”
My task was done – I had delivered the information, and now I just wanted to get out of there. I was tempted to say something that would be technically acceptable coming from a lower ranking officer, like, “Will that be all, sir?”
But real or imagined, he would certainly detect a hint of disdain or impatience in my voice, and renew his tirade. I decided to just stand there mutely absorbing the blows. Like Mohammed Ali’s rope-a-dope boxing tactic against George Foreman, I mentally leaned back against the ropes and let the Major tire himself out.
The spittle on his lip grew, and I watched it vibrate. As it did, I started to feel sorry for him and how he was embarrassing himself. I felt for his staff, who were trying to ignore the scene by pretending to focus on their work, or suddenly finding a reason to move to another part of the room.
Finally he ran out of steam, turned on his heel, and walked away, taking his spittle ball with him. I was dismissed.
The Anger Effect
Whatever the mission was, it got done. The Major’s leadership tantrum had no impact on the outcome. But it left a strong impression on me. If this experience was any guage, when people in leadership positions lose their head and succumb to their anger:
- We think less of them for losing their poise
- We tune them out if we are able
- We question their self-discipline and maturity
- We wonder at their ability to think clearly
- We are grateful if we don’t work there
- We are thinking about how to get away if we do
- We think: the louder they rant, the more childish and ineffectual they seem to be
And I don’t think it’s just me. Here’s what others have had to say about the effects of throwing leadership tantrums:
Leadership Tantrums – The Takeaway
It was twenty-six years ago when the Major yelled at me. The exact reason for his yelling quickly faded away, but the fact of his leadership tantrum is seared in my memory. People will remember less about an incident and more about how we react to it.
The lesson for me: losing your cool is a poor way to lead.
Will a leadership tantrum solve the problem? Usually not. More likely it will just make us appear smaller. Let’s wipe off the spittle, and get on with the business of leading.
Like a small child throwing an angry tantrum in the produce aisle: the wise parent, unperturbed, continues with their shopping.
Eventually, the child will learn.