Speaking When Angry (Habit Series #7)

The best leaders don’t use anger as a leadership tool. Anger is not a mandatory component of leadership because there are countless examples of successful leaders who never get angry. Yet, we can think of many leaders whose anger has compromised their effectiveness. The question is: what does anger get you? And then at what cost?


Marine Corps Cpl. Benjamin Peagler yells out an order to his team while participating in a platoon assault drill as a part of Exercise Cold Response 16 on range U-3 in Frigard, Norway, Feb. 23, 2016. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Rebecca Floto.

The Downside of Leading with Anger

The 7th Habit in Marshall Goldsmith’s “Twenty Habits That Hold You Back From The Top” is “Speaking when angry.” He says that anger does have some value for spurring change, but the cost to followers far exceeds that value. “Emotional volatility is not the most reliable leadership tool. When you get angry, you are usually out of control. It’s hard to lead people when you’ve lost control.”

You also have no idea how other people will react to it. It may make you feel better but everyone else just feels worse. It may energize the team for a short time, but not for the long haul. Goldsmith adds, “It’s very hard to predict how people will react to anger. They will shut down as often as they will perk up.”

Getting angry once or twice is recoverable (with an apology). But it doesn’t take much to become branded as an angry leader, a reputation that tends to precede every duty station you arrive at and prepend every interaction that people have with you. Followers and bosses alike will judge you on that reputation. In fact, I’ve seen people go out of their way to warn colleagues that their new boss “has a temper.”

Special Vulnerability for The Military Leader

It’s rare that angry military leaders simply have rotten characters. Usually it’s a breakdown of self-control that leads to angry outbursts. Stress, fatigue, and hunger are regular culprits. The problem is that military life is full of moments that cause stress, fatigue, and hunger.

For instance…you pulled an all-nighter writing the operations order, so naturally you’re irritable. You missed breakfast after PT and with glucose depleted, you lash out at the first subordinate who makes a mistake. You spend seven exhausting days in the field and your spouse has a “honey do” list waiting for you at the house, prompting you to energetically tell her you deserve a break.

High-paced operations, austere conditions, pressure to perform, and overall physical discomfort challenge the personal energy, patience, and emotional control of military leaders. Anger is easier in the military environment.

But that’s no excuse.

It’s ok to feel anger…it’s not ok to lead with it. Anger runs counter to every positive effect that military leaders should try to create in their teams. Initiative, confidence, cohesion, and commitment, are all impacted by a culture of anger. An angry leader will stifle creativity, the very element needed to solve complex organizational and operational problems. Followers are hesitant to bring their problems and challenges to an angry leader, a key sign of a trusting relationship. Whether it’s a permanent personality trait or an “every once in a while” outburst…anger isn’t worth it.

Tips for Avoiding Angry Leadership

So, you need to avoid leading when you’re angry. You need to find out if anger is a behavior you display publicly, figure out how to detect it, and then emplace controls to prevent or redirect your anger when it arises. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite feedback from followers. As with many problems, an open line of communication from those you lead will shed light on your behavior. But you must commit to really listening to that feedback. Hold a sensing session, or seek individual engagements, or issue a command climate survey. And be specific. Focus on discovering how your followers perceive and receive your leadership behavior.
  • Ask a trusted advisor. Whether it’s a senior enlisted advisor, a commander, a peer, or a spouse, those closest to you will be able to reveal if anger comes through in your personality. They see you at your best and your worst. But maybe you’ve never given them permission to tell you so. Ask some hard questions: “What’s it like to experience my leadership?” “How do I change when I’m fatigued and stressed?” “Does it seem like I am in tune with my emotional states and deliberate about their effect?” The answers may surprise you.
  • Become “meta aware.” Ever feel like you’re in reaction mode, bouncing from task to task, engagement to engagement without pausing to assess if you’re doing a good job or having the effect you want? Taking a step back to assess the quality of your performance is called meta awareness. It’s seeing yourself from an outside perspective, like watching a movie of yourself performing. Meta awareness will help you self-identify when your emotional, physical, and physiological conditions are priming you for poor leadership behavior. Once aware, you can take action to alter your emotional state or adjust your environment accordingly.
  • Keep your mouth shut. Marshall Goldsmith says, “If you keep your mouth shut, no one can know how you really feel.” It’s hard for leaders to resist adding their two cents, but opening your mouth when you’re emotionally charged can have damaging effects. So, don’t do it. Make a rule never to engage your team when you’re amped-up.
  • Take a breath. If you do see a mistake and become frustrated, let it go for a minute. Take a breath. Watch how others respond, gain context on the mistake, and give your body a moment to translate your emotions into coherent, controlled feedback, not outbursts. Reactive leading is “stimulus then immediate reaction.” Deliberate leading is “stimulus, pause, reflect, then react.” In nearly all leadership scenarios, you want to train the latter.
  • Reshape your emotional energy into a positive context. Generic, emotionally charged feedback sounds like this, “Are you kidding me? I can’t believe you people can’t get this right!!” There’s the “you vs. them” component, and there is no context. Will your followers fell the real impact of the situation simply because you’re upset? Some will, but it’s better to link your feedback to some operational component, which will bring the failure into their perspective. Instead of yelling, try calmly saying, “If we perform this way in combat, people will die.” Or, “There is a long line of service and sacrifice that got us to this point. We need to live up to that.” Angry leading neglects to consider that other forms of motivation might be just as effective, or even more so.

Yelling Isn’t (Necessarily) Angry

I want to close with a caveat. I am fully aware that plenty of military moments require yelling. (The energetic Marine in the above photo clearly isn’t in a meeting.) In combat and in training, leaders need to quickly get their followers’ attention and give direction, or people die. But I want to offer that leaders can do so without a constant tone of anger. It’s the difference between motivating and degrading. Spend some time thinking about the difference and determining how it comes through in your leadership behavior.

Be sure to read the other posts in this series and check out Marshall Goldsmith’s fantastic book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

WinningQuestions for Leaders

  • Does your emotional reaction drown out your true message?
  • In what ways can you shape your environment to prevent stress, fatigue, frustration, and even hunger?
  • Who is allowed to tell you that your behavior is compromising your effectiveness?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • John Harrington

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  • joshuagenes

    There is a time and place for everything under the sun. Knowing when and where to be angry controlled or otherwise takes wisdom. To disregard it completely is unwise.

  • Jon

    Idiocy. Anger is a tool. You use the tool that’s effective given the circumstances and the target audience. Leadership, is knowing which tool to use when.

    • JamesDrouin

      Jon – There are different levels of anger, and the author was referring to uncontrolled anger.

  • RTColorado

    As a general rule, anger is not a leadership trait, but to discount it completely is denying thousands of years of great examples where anger was exactly the correct technique. I suppose in today’s modern world of microaggressions and crystal thin skins, anger is less effective. Anger like any emotional affect is counter productive in every situation, but in many situations and particularly when effect is necessary in a short time frame, anger plays an effective and necessary role. Like any emotion, anger can be overdone and shouldn’t be used extensively or as a crutch. No one should ever get angry during a pillow fight or a hot chocolate clutch.

  • Justin Liesen

    Sir, thank you for sharing. I always found that when I lost my temper, my message sounded more like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoons. While I may have made a great argument, the message was lost within my elevated tone.

  • Claudio Alpaca

    Anger, a deleterious one for any man, anger, what a leader must never had, what a leader must never use when forming and forging men, as that risk to transform him an a dispotic man or a man not able to establish a dialogue with soldiers, a normal interplay, a relationship. It only destroy all abilities and all capacities on form, and surely should make us toxic on our acting and that is not well. Also if sometimes, on hard situations, we may be hangry, we must govern and controll such a situation by our mind and heart and by our will to be leader who offer themself for country and people, who offer themself for make men soldiers able to fight and combat, able to act on due and required times and manner. Anger should make us fall on inability not only to lead, but be right warriors. It is why we must controll our sentiments, our reactions and learn how avoid to have a bad manner to be leader, how avoid to make anger a natural sentiment or reaction. We must controll oursef on the same manner we require that by our men and must put away any form of. It is true we may live such moments, but ever we must avoid to loss our capacity on form, forge, create warriors, their character, their selfcontroll; hard sometimes, surely, but stimulant on our will to be