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How Do the Best Leaders Respond to Negative Events?

August 5, 2010

How many times has this happened to you?

  • You get the call saying you lost the deal
  • You find out that your reputation is being shredded behind your back.
  • A key project with your name all over it has hit a wall.
  • You totally botched an important presentation
  • You are on the receiving end of some negative feedback

    Tell me – when it happened, what was your immediate response?

    (Most likely answer: “Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”)

    Trust me, you’re not alone – we’ve all been there.

     As leaders, our response to the events around us is more important than the events themselves.

    One of the biggest challenges we all face as leaders is dealing with negative events. A bad situation at work can quickly unravel us from a place of calm, confidence and spiritual connection, down to the dredges of an emotional meltdown.

    Our natural subconscious inclination is to react to negative events with equal negativity. We’re just wired that way, like cave dwellers still living in the wild. A perceived threat usually evokes a colorful palette of emotional, knee-jerk reactions. Some of my personal favorites are revenge, depression, and raging insecurity.

    Well folks, that is obviously not the most spiritually healthy response for well-groomed leaders like you and I. Plus, we’re in a business setting now, not a prehistoric jungle.  Our instincts for fight or flight will generally not lead us to the greater good for ourselves, or for the organization.

    Believe it or not, we actually do have a choice in how to respond.  This, btw, is what separates us from the beasts. Making that choice requires awareness and intention to do the opposite of what our emotions are telling us to do. And therein lies the power we have for building the spiritual character of our leadership. Which, in turn, can shift the course of events to a much better outcome

    “Hold on, there, Brad,” you’re saying. “Where can I get me some of this life-changing leadership mojo?”

    I’m glad you asked. If any of you are in the Northeast (or wanting to visit the Northeast!), mark your calendars for Thursday evening, August 26th from 6:30 – 9:00 pm, where you can join me for an event hosted by A New Equilibrium, an organization committed to developing spiritually committed business leaders. It will consist of an excellent dinner at The Golden Pheasant Inn in beatiful Bucks County, PA on the Delaware River (smack in between Philadelphia and New York City. Well, kind of). Dinner will be followed by plenty of real discussion and practical tools addressing the challenge of dealing with difficult events at work.

    You will learn how to transition from negative to positive, and how to return to that calm, confident and connected place where we do our best work as leaders.

    For more information, click on this link: ANE August 2010 Event Rev 3, or click here to register.

    And you can always just drop me a line at to find out more.

    Hope to see you there!

    Photo by nAncY.

    23 Comments leave one →
    1. August 5, 2010 10:10 am

      One bad habit I had was to BLAME others…blame the boss,blame the customer, blame coworkers, blame the economy, blame the company.

      Once I got rid of the Blame game, I was free to just ‘be’

      • August 5, 2010 4:30 pm

        Wow, that is huge. What a self-revelation that must have been, too. A lot of the time we justify our blaming, but you’re right. It sure doesn’t help the situation. Thanks David.

    2. August 5, 2010 10:59 am


      How emotionally tantalizing. I loved your discussion regarding the human brain – such a fun topic. That darn amygdala always has an urge and an itch to express emotional nastiness. Couple with it, the memory/emotional response power of our hippocampi (lined by the ‘alveus’), and you got a recipe for some volcanic activity. And all those neat structural brain components are bunched together (along with the fornix and a few others) to create our irrationally charged limbic system – the system that helps us blow steam out of our ears when things are not going as planned or as we would like.

      You know what makes me feel better when I am feeling emotionally unsettled? A nice cup of coco with little white floating marshmellows. The little white marshmellows make me so happy because they’re so buoyant, soft, and easy going. How do those little guys float anyways? They’re so cute.

      Besides cups of coco, what would happen if we calmed our emotional responses and thought about what fixed set of action patterns has brought us to an undesirable result or situation? For instance, what negative consequences does an individual or group incur when they use another person or group too much for their own purpose and benefit? And, what happens to an individual or group when they try and manipulate another individual or group’s feelings too much only in an effort to reinforce further use?

      I don’t know though, I’m just blabbering on about nothing.

      Three cheers for Brad…hip-hip hooray, hip-hip hooray, hip-hip hooray!

      BJM, you’re a cool dude.

      • August 5, 2010 4:39 pm

        Matthew – You sure do know alot about marshmallows. I mean, about the neurophysiology of the brain. I took that course in college, but mostly forgot about all those parts of the brain responsible for our savage behavior. Seriously, you bring up a great point about identifying the source of the bad behavior/response as a means of improving the situation (something we can control?), while I was mostly thinking about how we can manage our response. Both together should lead to the best outcome, to manage both our own response and the situation going forward. Great idea! (and you are very cool, too, dude!)

    3. Anna permalink
      August 5, 2010 11:10 am

      I agree with David@Red Letter Believers!!

      Brad, I am encouraged to know there are corporate leaders out there that actually care about their responses to situations and their spiritual life connecting to their work. I’ve been put in a difficult, dysfunctional team and constantly scratch my head wondering why leaders don’t evolve or care much about the people they manage. Referring back to the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, that has inspired me, I found that it’s important even when you’re in a non-leadership or management position to utilize your leadership skills. Use them to evoke change that’s in your control and reflect the behavior you wish you could see in your leaders.

      In a chapter called Dynamic Following which also taps into dynamic leading, my favorite part was this paragraph which echoes in my head every day: “Towards the end of his career at Hallmark, MacKenzie became something of a Dutch uncle to many employees who would come to vent and cry on his shoulder with their concerns. He related one incident where a frustrated employee came to him, shared their problems, and concluded with “I wish we had some dynamic leadership around here!” MacKenzie immediately replied with “I wish we had some dynamic following around here!”

      • August 5, 2010 4:44 pm

        Anna – Yes, there are a few of us (and growing) who are actively seeking some kind of spiritual integration/intervention in our work and leadership roles. We have about 30-40 coming out to this event so far.

        This is the second time you’ve mentioned that Hairball book, so I better get on the stick and get me a copy! It really sounds like it’s had a big impact on you. And I agree wholeheartedly that everyone, in every role, is a leader in some regard, and can act upon that. We all get negative events that we have to deal with, at least.

        Thanks so much for visiting the site and for your comment.

        • Anna permalink
          August 6, 2010 1:29 pm

          Yes, do get a copy of the book – it’s a very quick and easy read – and for a designer like me, having creative doodles throughout it makes it all the more fun to follow along. And I think you’ll find it encouraging that my pastor incorporates purpose and calling for those in the workplace/corporate setting consistently in his sermons. He validates it as much as any traditional “missionary work”. Have a great and inspiring time at the event!

    4. August 5, 2010 2:41 pm

      Brad — I think you’re right on with the insight that the response is vastly more important than the events themselves. One time I watched a string of bad financial reports drive a company’s leadership into hiding. Employees were left adrift. The business suffered and worsened. The bad reports continued.

      People can deal with bad news. What they can’t deal with is leadership refusing to deal with bad news.

    5. August 5, 2010 5:35 pm

      a sneek peek of what is happening this month, i see.
      i just realized that ane is the same organization that hosts the may conference.

    6. August 5, 2010 6:12 pm

      As to the question where one can get life-changing mojo – there is an app on the iPad called WeRule and it let’s you buy mojo. (I haven’t bought any yet.)
      When I deal with negative events, I try to ask myself ‘what do I want from the person I am currently talking to?’ – and often discover that the answer is ‘continue doing a great job’ and that I should express my gratitude. Sometimes I discover that too late though.
      When I can’t get over myself, those buoyant marshmallows help and of course my husband and dog who are always happy, friendly and loving.
      Once you return from the event, I really hope you’ll write about it here and share some of the thoughts with us.

    7. August 5, 2010 8:39 pm


      Anna is shoplifting my buoyant marshmallow mental imagery. She’s being naughty. Wouldn’t it be fun to shrink into a mini person and jump from marshmallow to marshallow? Kind of like one of those old video games.

      Incidentally, thanks for correcting my spelling from ‘marshmellow’ to ‘marshmallow’.

      I understand what you are saying about the self-control thing when things are going bad. I was trying to identify with you there by relaying the info about a ‘fixed set of action pattern behaviors’, where the fixed set of action patterns within the individual are the ‘responses’ to good news/bad news/various situations that happen at work, at home, or in the worst context – inside of our own minds.

      So I guess yes, everything you discuss in your article (all the feelings and emotions) can easily be controlled if properly trained/conditioned.

      I’ll see if I can dig up one of my Leadership Excellence publications for you from 2008, it titled ‘Managing Emotion: It’s The Hallmark Of A Leader”. It discusses ‘response behaviors’ (i.e. – vulnerability, defensiveness, and assertiveness). That is if you would like me to dig it up and send it your way?

      I love that word – ‘savage’. I haven’t seen it used in writing in a while.


    8. August 5, 2010 9:11 pm

      …unless you’d be jumping on the leprechaun’s lucky charms. That savage would come after you.

    9. August 6, 2010 5:15 am

      Okay, this banter ranks as the best comment exchange ever on this site. Anna, I laughed out loud real hard when I read your last snippet about the savage leprachaun.

      Yes, Matthew, please send me that article you wrote. I think I would find that very helpful. Thanks!

    10. August 6, 2010 6:56 am

      Brad, during my husband’s illness and subsequent death I was often reminded that we don’t always get to choose our circumstances but we DO get to choose how we respond. We can respond negatively or we can respond His way. So often it only takes a moment of not reacting and listening for that still small voice. Thank you Brad for the encouragement to be His reflection at all times.

    11. August 6, 2010 9:27 am


      I didn’t understand Anna’s quip. Is my lack of understanding a result of my unknowing and ripe age? I’d ask Anna directly but she did not directly address me in her retort. Does Anna have a touch of the yellow?


      • August 6, 2010 9:55 am

        It’s really sad that I know this and no I don’t eat them but Anna’s quip was about Lucky Charms cereal marshmallows and the leprechaun dude on the box. 🙂

    12. August 6, 2010 11:18 am

      Thanks Karen,

      I never ate Lucky Charms cereal as a young child, I was more of a Honeycombs consumer. Don’t worry, I’m sure Anna will conjure up a response within a reasonable amount of time.

    13. August 6, 2010 3:44 pm

      A few months ago at Aldi (grocery store), my husband rediscovered Lucky Charms, or ‘Stars & Marshmallows’ as the store brand is called. What can I say? He works with kids, and sometimes acts or eats like one. (LIKE one – he doesn’t eat kids!)
      Anyway, growing up with German ‘Muesli’, I’m amazed that people have put MARSHMALLOWS IN BREAKFAST CEREAL (looks buoyant/harmless, but is not). Only a cunning, evil-minded (gold-hungry “eat-marshmallows-and-don’t-come-looking-for-my-treasure”) leprechaun would have done so.
      Sorry to get this far off topic!

    14. August 7, 2010 6:13 pm

      My husband and I were talking the other day about a presentation he had to create for someone else. When he reviewed it with his supervisor, the one who would do the presenting, the supervisor wanted numerous things changed.

      “Did that bother you?” I asked. “Did you feel like you’d failed?”

      “No,” he replied. “No, it just helped me realize better what he wanted. I could go back and hopefully get closer on the next version.”

      I thought of my perfectionist daughter who was sitting in the room and purposely said, “I’m impressed–and happy for you. As for me, I would have felt like a failure.”

      My husband played right along, whether he did so intentionally or not. “I realized some time ago that I can’t think like that. It doesn’t do any help the situation. I just see it as a learning opportunity to get better at what I do and accept that I can’t read someone else’s mind perfectly. That would be the ideal, to get it perfect the first time, but it doesn’t happen often.”

      Anyway, I guess I write this to say that I think my husband has chosen to respond positively and as a result, has shifted the course of events and experienced a better outcome.

    15. August 7, 2010 6:16 pm

      It doesn’t do “anything to help the situation.” That sentence is missing a few words.

    16. August 9, 2010 5:54 pm

      Well, I agree with Bradley. This banter is a HOOT! I would love to go to the event, but alas, I am far, far away in the Midwest. And though I am not a leader at my company, per se, I do tend to get negative news at time, often by email. Oh, you wouldn’t believe how fast my fingers can fly when I am on the receiving end of criticism or negativity. I type and type and type. I tell them what’s what. And then I usually delete it.

      I haven’t always deleted those rants and raves, and I’ve almost always regretted those. But the ones I don’t send, the ones that help me work through the issue in my head, usually help me respond better once I have a little time to process.

      I’m more rational in person. If I think I’m going to come off too snarky or harsh, it’s better for me to pick up the phone or walk to the person’s office. It’s easier to respond well when I am facing a person than it is a screen.


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