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Don’t Let Your Emotions Hijack Your Success: Emotional Intelligence in Leadership
Leadership is more than just organizational, technical and tactical skills; it involves relational skills. Emotional intelligence allows all types of leaders to navigate the relational, behavioral, and cultural aspects of leading an organization. In order to succeed, one must master the skills of managing his/her own emotions and navigating the emotions of others.
Dr. Reggie Thomas – Reggie’s greatest strength is relationships. Over the years he has cultivated and nurtured multiple relationships at various levels of his life – both personally and professionally. His passion is to help leaders develop healthy relationships in the workplace, as well as help individuals, enjoy fulfilling and enriching relationships. Reggie holds a doctorate degree in organization development and his doctoral dissertation was in the area of the value and benefit of emotional intelligence. He has used that research to help scores of leaders improve their leadership skills and improve culture and morale in the workplace.
Reggie is President of PeakePotential, which is a new firm that focuses on executive coaching, leadership coaching, training, and consulting. He brings a wealth of experience in providing resources in the area of emotional intelligence, JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) issues, team building, leadership, conflict management, and building healthy organizational culture. Reggie is passionate about investing and pouring into other leaders. He is a “leader of leaders”, who wants to see leaders reach the apex of their leadership potential. Reggie also has a passion for investing in others personally to improve the quality of their lives. PeakePotential will also offer the service of life coaching to help people with life balance, self-care, healthy relationships, setting boundaries, the discovery of life purpose, legacy building, and other life issues.
Reggie has also worked with TurningWest, Inc., an organization-developed firm where he had the opportunity to work with several organizations in the areas of executive coaching, strategic planning, organization assessment, culture assessment, and team building. He is a gifted speaker and has been a speaker on a national basis for 32 years. He is available for keynote speeches, presentations, conferences, workshops, and seminars.
Reggie wants his life legacy to be about serving others to help make their lives better. Nothing brings him more joy than celebrating the progress and success of others. Reggie has been married to Jeannine for 32 years and they have two grown daughters: Amanda and Emilee. He loves his family and takes pride in being a husband and father. Reggie and Jeannine enjoy traveling and over the past few years have broadened that interest by doing international travel. Reggie is an avid runner. He has run 35 marathons and 5 ultra-marathons. He has also run the prestigious Boston Marathon 9 times.
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. This will be a really good episode of The Nonprofit Exchange. Today, we are going to be talking about emotional things. Our guest today is Dr. Reggie Thomas. Our title is “Don’t Let Your Emotions Hijack Your Success.” Before we dig into the content, Reggie, tell people a little bit about who you are, your background, and why you are doing this important work.
Reggie Thomas: Hugh, it’s great being with you here today. I appreciate the invitation to share this moment and experience with you. This is one of my favorite topics. I grew up in a small town in Tennessee called Huntington. I grew up on a farm out in the country. Migrated to California back in 1996. My wife is a Californian. I have been married 32 years. I have two grown daughters. Amanda is 28, and Emily is 26.
My background as a career person has been pretty diverse. I have been a professor, a pastor, and an organizational development consultant. My specialty is in leadership. My doctorate is in organizational leadership, which is kind of where this journey began. When I entered the doctoral program, I immediately began thinking, what am I going to write a dissertation on? I started looking at my own life.
One of the things that attracted me to emotional intelligence was the fact that I recognized my own deficits. I have always been a people person. I have always loved people. I have always worked well with people. Where I struggled was in areas of conflict and working with difficult people. I often found myself reactive, emotional. I thought, If I am going to be successful in life, I have to get on top of that. I began this study of emotional intelligence out of my own need. It wasn’t to impress professors or to get a degree. It was really to enhance my own life and my own skills. That is where this journey began.
Hugh: What is your passion in your work?
Reggie: My top passion is developing people. I believe that in order for people to be successful, they have to be relational. They have to get the relationship thing right. My vision, purpose in life is to develop leaders. I am convinced that there are a lot of leaders out there who have great skills in terms of vision, administration. But I see leaders struggling in the area of relationship. Being a people person, a people connector, and learning from my own life experience, I know the secret to success is how you manage relationships. In order to do that, you have to be emotionally intelligent, to deal with different types of personalities and to be able to work under pressure as you work with people. It’s a very important skillset you have to have in order to succeed as a leader and in life in general.
Hugh: Amen to that. Like you, I spent 40 years in church music ministry, so I was the backup for you guys who were preachers. You can’t get up to preach if you have bad music before that. The work that we do anywhere is about relationships. The saying about an orchestra: If they respect a conductor, then they play as the conductor intends. If they don’t, they play exactly as the conductor conducts. It’s the highest priority, to have those relationships and maintain them. It’s the key factor.
Your topic is about emotions, EQ, all this stuff that some people may not be familiar with. Why don’t you give us context for what that’s about?
Reggie: Great question, Hugh. Emotional intelligence is being aware of the emotional world, being aware of your own emotions, and being able to regulate those emotions. One of the things I often tell people is emotions don’t really have labels. We tend to label emotions. For example, happiness is a positive emotion. Anger is a negative emotion. What the experts say is that emotions are neutral. We were created as emotional beings. We were created to express and feel emotions. What causes an emotion to be either bad or good is how we manage those emotions. Every emotion has a purpose. It’s being aware of the emotional world, of the emotions of others, of your own emotions, and then being able to manage them and regulate them. That is what emotional intelligence is. But the key is understanding that emotions are neutral. They are not bad or good. It’s what you do with them. It’s how you express them.
Hugh: How are ways that emotions hijack our leadership? That’s a fantastic title; I love it.
Reggie: I don’t want to bore the audience with science and neurology. When I started my study on this, where I began was research just from neurology. When emotional intelligence first came on the forefront, it was really scientific. Then you had men like Daniel Goleman who popularized it. Daniel Goleman is probably the premier expert on emotional intelligence. There are other writers and experts out there. It’s something that has been incorporated in the business world, church life, and all aspects of society. It’s very practical now, not just scientific.
Where I came up with this hijacking concept is through how the brain works. You have the emotional center of the brain and the rational center. What happens is when we get into a situation that is conflictual or difficult or highly emotional, the first place that is processed in the brain is in the emotional center. We tend to react if we allow that to happen. What happens is that oftentimes, if we encounter a bad stimulus, someone offends us, someone says something to us that we don’t like, or they make us angry, we immediately react. What emotional intelligence is is pausing, to think through how you’re going to respond.
Let me say this: Emotional intelligence is not repressing your feelings. Neither is emotional intelligence expressing your feelings inappropriately. It’s stepping back, thinking through how you’re going to respond to that situation, and acting versus reacting. Acting in the appropriate manner. What often happens is that the emotional brain hijacks the rational brain. If you were to offend me, if I’m not in my best state of mind, and my emotional intelligence skills are not kicked in, I am going to immediately react. I am going to react to you in a negative way.
But if I pause and think through how I need to respond to you, that conversation, when I approach you about how you offended me, is going to go much better. I am going to have my emotions regulated. That term “hijacking” simply means that we act on our own emotions. We allow our emotions to dictate behaviors that really we don’t want to express, but we do it reactively. The emotional brain hijacks the rational brain.
Hugh: That is so important. I have the Goleman book, and he breaks it down into the components of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. It’s a whole network of how we manage self. Another writer which you may or may not be familiar with is Murray Bowen.
Reggie: The Bowen theory, yes.
Hugh: How does that tie in? it’s about managing self. Bowen’s position is you always stay in your thinking self, but your thoughts are informed from your emotions, right?
Reggie: Right. This is interesting research. The research shows that when we get into a highly emotional situation, the rational brain goes offline. It goes offline for 30 minutes. You’re all in your emotions then. That part of the brain that regulates emotion is called the amygdala. That kicks in, and you begin to feel things and respond in a way that is highly reactive, highly defensive, highly emotional. That was interesting research to me because that is something I learned just recently. The cognitive part of your brain shuts down for about 30 minutes, which is why you need to take that pause and think before you respond to something.
Hugh: That is such valuable advice. When I took a coaching clinic and studied corporate coaching, we were taught to pause for three seconds after someone finishes talking. If anything creates anxiety, that is a good time to catch a breath.
You use the word “react” as opposed to “respond.” We are in a very volatile world now, and there is a lot of reacting and accusing and pointing fingers. I challenge the people pointing fingers and blaming to find anybody who is innocent, in D.C. especially. Everybody is contributing in a very unproductive way. The more it escalates, the more emotion there is. Some psychologists call it the flooding of your brain when you just give over to emotions. What is the danger of not understanding that? This applies to any sector where people are leading.
Reggie: Absolutely. The reason this is so important to leadership is leaders manage and direct people. Leaders don’t operate in isolation. Leaders develop people, empower people, motivate people, collaborate with people. The leader not only has to regulate their emotions, but they also have to be able to regulate the emotions in a room. In any leadership position, as you work with people, you will get on topics, issues where people don’t agree. The people who you’re leading, even though you might be emotionally intelligent, may not be. They may not have your acumen in EQ. You have to be able to manage that room, that group, that conversation so that it doesn’t get out of hand. That is a real skill in terms of how to do that.
Hugh: In no way is that avoiding it, right?
Reggie: No, you don’t avoid. Emotional intelligence is not avoiding. It’s not sweeping issues under the carpet.
Hugh: Give me an example of something arises, and we need to deal with it. How do we make sure that we’re dealing with it in a calm, conscious, fact-forward manner, and not reacting to it? How do we then go forward without saying, “I am going to wait a couple days,” which might be disastrous? How do we get to that point where we know we can then respond?
Reggie: I know that you’re very familiar with Speed Leas’ work on the different levels of conflict. There are five levels of conflict. Level one is the lowest, and level five is the highest. There are different dynamics that take place as you go through the levels. Obviously, the more intense the conversation is, the more serious an issue is, and how much of a contrast there is in different personalities, that will dictate the level of that conflict.
With each level of conflict, something happens in the dynamics. Level one and two, it’s very issue-oriented. Everyone in the room, the objective there is to solve the problem. When you begin to get into level three and four, the issue gets lost. Now it’s personal. People begin to attack each other versus tackling the problem or issue. Also, with each level, it gets more and more emotional, where you lose sight of objectivity.
What I have done in my life as a leader is if it appears to be a level three or four conflict, but we have to solve something, we have to make a decision in the moment, I will shut the meeting down. I will say, “Folks, let’s take a 10-minute break. Relax, refresh. Get something to drink or eat. Use the restroom. We will come back in 10 or 15 minutes, and we will reconvene the conversation.” It gives people time to think, get their emotions in check, cool down. If it’s on a lighter level, what I typically do is redirect the conversation. I will remind people, “This is the objectivity.”
One thing I have also learned in conflict management is typically, David Augsburger, he is a conflict specialist. He uses this concept called the third way. If there is a disagreement between two individuals or groups, one group/person has an opinion or perspective, and the other has one, too. They are fighting it out, discussing it, debating it. That is good and healthy. Where it becomes unhealthy is where it becomes an impasse. The tension is so high that everyone wants their own way. David Augsburger says that what we need to do is think of a third way, another option. Let’s abandon both perspectives and think of a third that might be a better solution. That is a situation where conflict is healthy because it allows you to be more creative. It allows more ideas to be generated. If you can get a group to arrive on a third way, that strategy or idea or approach to the situation is usually much better than either group’s idea in the first place.
Hugh: I don’t know how you knew that, but I wrote about it in one of my books, Building High-Performance Teams. Something simple becomes nuclear if we don’t deal with it. You’re so helpful there. We have to manage it. We don’t need to solve it. Sometimes people just want to be heard.
One person I interviewed for this long article, Bishop William Willimon, said clergy as a particular profession avoid conflict, and therefore it becomes more prevalent and gets worse. Conflict is really the sign of energy in an organization. We don’t ever solve it; we just manage it. What you just talked about is getting people into meaningful conversation, especially when it gets elevated and people forget what in the heck they were arguing about in the first place.
Hugh: Back to Murray Bowen and his writing about family systems, he has a concept he calls the focus child. Johnny grew up with everyone blaming him as the bad boy. When he goes into work, he creates problems to get attention. How do we then deal with someone who is really creating conflict to draw attention to themselves?
Reggie: One of the things that I really appreciate about the Bowen theory, because I use some of that in my doctoral dissertation, is he talks about how the way we manage emotions goes back to our childhood, our family of origin. Some families, let’s just love each other and not talk about anything difficult. We are going to love each other and not deal with issues. What that does is conditions a child who eventually becomes an adult to be conflict-avoidant, to avoid the hard and difficult conversations.
There are some families where it’s just open expression. You say what you feel. You say what you want. That creates openness in an individual. What they don’t learn in that aspect is how to manage it.
Going back to conflict management, there are two different things. One is conflict resolution, and one is conflict utilization. Not every conflict is going to be resolved. Some conflicts can’t be resolved. They are too sharp. There are too many personalities and perspectives involved. Then the leader has to turn that thing around and say, “Group, how are we going to utilize this conflict and turn it into something useful?” Conflict is not negative. Conflict can be very positive, which is why it’s so attached to emotional intelligence. How are we going to use this for the good of the group, for the good of the family, for the good of our organization? How are we going to turn this into something beneficial? It’s conflict utilization.
Hugh: Your company is Peake Potential. People can find out more at PeakePotential.com. When people go to your website, what will they find?
Reggie: They will find a list of services that I offer, in terms of what I do. I do executive coaching for leaders, including emotional intelligence. That is probably one of my favorite things I do. I do a lot of workshops, seminars, and motivational speaking. I have a variety of topics I speak on. I also work with medium-sized organizations in consults. I do culture assessments, diversity/equity/inclusion projects, team-building projects with organizations, strategic planning. They will also find that this is something I am very passionate about.
Hugh: The reason I have coaches—one of my coaches is a colleague of Murray Bowen, Roberta Gilbert, who for 13 years asked me really good questions—is it helps me see my blind spots. They call them blind spots because you can’t see them, but we all have them. What are some of the blind spots leaders have, especially about this area of EQ and how it’s important?
Reggie: A lot of leaders are not self-aware. That’s a huge issue that I see in leadership. You referred to it earlier. The different components of EQ. there is self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management. I think the blind spots lie in all four of those components of EQ. Some leaders are not self-aware. Some leaders don’t know how to regulate their own emotions, to navigate those. Some leaders don’t have social awareness. They don’t know how to read people, empathize, or motivate people. In leadership, a big issue is navigating a large collection of people, managing different personalities. That requires a relational skillset to be able to do that. I think a lot of leaders have blind spots in those four areas of EQ.
Hugh: Amazing. I think most people are blind to the fact they have blind spots. Does it come up as a priority for people to be able to look at those? Or is that something you acquaint people with?
Reggie: I typically acquaint them with it. When people secure me as an executive coach, they bring things they want to work on. My coaching approach is I dig very deep. I go back to not just the issues, but I go to the triggers. A lot of our behaviors and the way we manage our life and lead people stem from triggers.
I want to be authentic just for a moment here. Earlier in my leadership journey, I struggled with anger. Now you may find that surprising. People who have not known me very long find that shocking. I do see myself now as a very calm, reasonable, rational person. It’s a learned skill. I had to learn that. But I struggled with anger for the first half of my adult life. I didn’t know where that came from. I don’t want to go too deep into it because it’s a little too personal. I found that the trigger went back to my childhood. I had some anger issues toward my father. I won’t go into the details of that, but I was angry at my father. When I became an adult, anybody that resembled my father, anybody that behaved the way my father did, it created this feeling of anger within me. I discovered that was my trigger.
You have to know the trigger. You can’t change your behavior unless you know what the trigger is. For years, I struggled with anger. I’m thinking, “Hugh, I’m a nice guy. People like me, and I like people. Why do I get angry? Why do I blow my top at times?” It’s because I had this unresolved anger in me. It wasn’t until I became aware of the trigger—I was already aware of the emotion—but I had to learn where is the trigger? I now know the trigger. I know the types of personality that I need to be aware of. I know the type of individual I need to be aware of. I am aware of the situations that can create anger. It’s understanding the trigger. In my coaching, I help people understand where those triggers are. They need to identify those.
Hugh: That would be what I call a blind spot. People don’t even know they’re there. That is so helpful. For people not understanding, learning, and mastering EQ skills, what are the hazards?
Reggie: Oh gosh, there are so many hazards. This doesn’t just affect leadership; it affects all of life. I think one hazard is you’re not going to have a lot of close friends. When you look at the friendship pyramid, you have acquaintances, casual friends, good friends, close friends, intimate friends. Most people, especially men, don’t have a lot of close relationships. I think women do a much better job of recognizing emotions, being comfortable with emotions. In order to have close and intimate friends, there has to be an emotional connection. If you’re not emotionally intelligent, you’re not going to have the acumen, the ability to develop close friendships because you will always be guarded. You will keep people at a distance because you don’t understand the importance or how to connect emotionally with people.
Another hazard is you won’t be able to manage conflict. Conflict is inevitable. It’s normal, it’s natural, it’s a part of life. You have to take whatever conflict management style you have and use it appropriately to resolve conflict. You’re going to have issues with that.
Another issue is you will sabotage your life. You will sabotage relationships. It takes years to build a strong friendship. One expression of anger, one negative or hurtful comment, one negative action can damage that friendship. There are all kinds of hazards if you are not emotionally intelligent.
Hugh: My, my, my. I am interested in it. How do I learn more about EQ? How do I grow my skills and become better at being aware of EQ?
Reggie: One thing is accountability. When I was going through my struggle with trying to resolve the anger issue in my life, my wife was my accountability partner. She held me in check. When she saw me defaulting to my natural tendency of how I responded to difficult people, she would call me in check. She wouldn’t always do it in the moment. But when I would get home, she would ream me out and say, “Reggie, you blew it again.” That’s the thing about emotional intelligence. You won’t be perfect. Even the most emotionally intelligent people are going to blow it. I still blow it. I think we all do. It’s being aware, and having somebody to hold you accountable to that.
The other thing is I think it takes a coach or counselor to help you work through some of those issues. I think you need relationships with other people around you to help you through that.
And there is a great deal of reading you can do. Daniel Goleman has so many books out there that I think are very helpful. What I like about Daniel Goleman’s books is they are extremely practical tips on how you can do it. He has exercises that you can go through to help you deal with emotional situations in the moment.
Hugh: That chapter we looked at in this article, it was a chart. It was so easy to follow. You have some motivational reading. There are some articles by you on your website.
Reggie: You have really been checking me out, have you?
Hugh: I am trying to find really hard questions, but you are just knocking them off like they are nothing. You have been a leader as a clergy. I don’t know if you have been a leader as a nonprofit executive. What are some of the most reasons—you have people around a cause who are on a journey together—what are some of the uses that you would say to them, “I need to step up my game and learn this.” Give us some encouragement for that sector.
Reggie: First of all, for those of you who after listening to this conversation go, “Oh my goodness, I need to work on this. I’m now aware that I have triggers. I’m aware I don’t manage my emotions appropriately. I don’t express them well. I don’t know what to do with them.” That’s another thing about emotional intelligence. A lot of people feel these emotions, but they don’t understand them. They don’t know what to do with them.
The good news is that your EQ acumen is not fixed. When I say that to people, they go, “Wow, really?” People equate EQ with personality. You know the psychological research, that most of our personality is formed and shaped and pretty much fixed by the time we are five or six years of age. Emotional intelligence is not that way. You can be reconditioned. For those of you who are struggling with this issue, struggling with self-awareness, regulating your emotions, and you don’t know how to express them, there is hope. Your EQ skills can change.
It goes back to physiology and neurology. The brain is pliable. You can recondition the brain. You can train your brain to take a highly emotional stimulus and move that to the rational part of the brain. Learn how to think through things. Learn how to think through how you will handle a situation, and come back to that situation and respond versus react. There is hope. You can change it.
Hugh: There is hope. I make the mistakes that I teach people not to make. You confess that you make the same mistakes. We teach this stuff. Knowing that nobody is perfect is helpful. However, when we do something that we regret, how do we show some grace toward ourselves and get past that?
Reggie: That is a great question. It’s important to recognize that you are human. You do have human nature. We all have that within us. You embrace it, but you acknowledge it. One of the things that I have found so freeing is the ability to go back to a person and say, “Hey, I am so sorry. I blew it,” and name it. A lot of people don’t know how to apologize. A true, authentic apology is being able to own it and being able to name what you did to offend that person and to express a heartfelt apology and a commitment that you will work harder. When that person extends grace and forgiveness to you, that gives you freedom.
I think we have all had experiences where you offended somebody, you felt badly about it, you dealt with it in your own heart and soul, you went back to that person, and they didn’t give you grace. They continue to beat you down about it. You’re giving this heartfelt apology. You’re sorry, it’s sincere and authentic and true, and they don’t receive it. That’s what makes you feel even worse about what you did. But when they extend grace and say, “Hey Reggie, I forgive you. I understand. Let’s move forward,” that’s what frees you up when you make those mistakes in the way you relate to people.
Hugh: That is great advice. I know I’m my worst critic. A lot of people I work with are also their own worst critics. We create barriers we don’t need to create. You used the word “authentic” earlier. I think leaders have to be authentic and transparent. You have just modeled that. Any final thought you want to leave us with today? This is great stuff.
Reggie: I just want to say to people that success in life is relationships. I don’t see myself as a very intelligent person. I don’t see myself as a highly skilled person. I think the one thing that I have learned to master in life that has been working in my favor is my ability to love people, work with people, and even deal with and work with difficult personalities. I think my success in life has come through my relational abilities.
Here is something I want to leave people with. Daniel Goleman says that 75% of our success in life is our EQ skills. 25% is our IQ. Our society has reversed that, and they don’t take into account the emotional and relational domains of life. I know as a kid growing up, it was all about having a high IQ. It was all about taking the right courses, going to college. I am pro-education, pro-development, pro-expanding your mind. But that only gets you so far. Pastors that have not excelled in ministry, leaders who have not excelled in the business world, it’s not largely due to their education, knowledge, or skillset. It’s managing people and working with people and dealing with people. Your IQ, your skills will get your foot in the door. They will get you down the road. But eventually, you’re going to have some difficult situations. That is where your EQ skills are going to take you even further.
I can’t say it enough. I can’t stress it enough. The relational aspect of life is the most important thing that is going to attribute to your success.
Hugh: Reggie Thomas, really good words. Thank you for being our guest today on The Nonprofit Exchange.
Reggie: Thank you, Hugh. This was a great conversation.