Do you remember the analogy of the rider and the elephant in the book Switch? Each of us has a rider—our rational, logical self—and each of us has an elephant—our emotional, reactionary self. When things are going just fine in our lives, our rider is usually in control; we make decisions based on healthy beliefs and values and tend to behave rationally. But when something pokes at our elephant, our rider loses some degree of control. Our elephant might just get a little jumpy, or it might stampede—the rider hanging on for dear life.

Here are two examples of what might provoke our elephants:

  • Let’s say you receive some difficult adjusting feedback from someone who knows you well, who you trust, and who has given you great adjusting feedback before. Even though you know the feedback is given out of a desire to help you grow (rider), you might display an emotional reaction, like getting hot, clamming up, tearing up or crying, or feeling defensive (elephant). In this case, most people’s rider is able to take back control over the elephant fairly quickly.
  • Now let’s say that you’re called into your manager’s office one day. You don’t know your manager at all, and they don’t know you. You’ve never had a one-on-one with them before. (Obviously this organization doesn’t have the greatest culture.) You sit down, ready for your first real conversation, and instead, they fire you. Just like that. This would make most of our elephants stampede; the rider having no control whatsoever for a time.

I want to make clear that a stampeding elephant doesn’t look the same in everyone. Some people would tell their manager to shove it and storm out of the office (which would likely be a bit noticeable). But some might appear rational and calm, even though internally their elephant is stampeding all over the place, and they won’t remember the conversation accurately or they’ll say some things they regret.

We’ve worked with many leaders over the years, and I’ve noticed a trend: Some of our most rational, logical participants have expressed a belief that their rider has more control over their elephant than the average person. They believe that being extremely logical in itself tames the elephant. I’m sorry to share that this is simply untrue. Being a logical thinker does not give someone an advantage in controlling the elephant. Instead, it gives them different ways to cover up the stampeding elephant. They might be able to lay a “rational” reason over their emotional response. Being a very rational, logical person is a gift in itself, but it does not give anyone more intrinsic control over the elephant.

So what does empower the rider to more easily control that reactionary elephant? Emotional maturity. The more emotionally mature a person is, the more they are able to behave out of healthy beliefs and values (the rider) instead of knee-jerk emotional reactions (the elephant).

True emotional maturity means staying calm in anxious systems. It means not reacting when everyone around you is reacting. It means staying connected to people who are difficult because that’s what is best for the living system. It means knowing yourself well—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and actively soliciting feedback from others. It means accepting your own limitations. It means asking others for help because you know you don’t have all of the answers. It means taking responsibility instead of blaming others. It means admitting when you are wrong and behaving in ways that you will look back on in pride, not regret.

Becoming emotionally mature is a never-ending process. The best leaders know this, and they actively work to grow their emotional maturity. This takes years to develop, but committing to that never-ending journey is part of what it takes to become a great leader.

I encourage you to reread the paragraph above where I shared examples of what emotional maturity looks like. How emotionally mature do you believe you are? How would the people around you describe your emotional maturity? What might you need to change within yourself in order to become more emotionally mature?

The journey to emotional maturity is often uncomfortable, but it yields tremendous rewards. I hope you continue to pursue emotional maturity as you continue your growth as a leader.

Lead on,

Image by soomness. Used under CC by 2.0 license.