The ‘Awfulizing’ Leader

As a change-agent coach, it is common for me to come across leaders who report being told they over-react to situations. When asked if they believe the accusation, few admit they do. At first, that is. But when pressed, most admit that they do, but don’t see that as a problem. In fact, many say it helps them temper their otherwise possibly more rash impulses. This rationalisation, and what it masks is something that deserves closer scrutiny.

In the early 1950s, psychotherapist and psychologist Albert Ellis came to belief that all people have both rational and irrational tendencies.

Rational tendencies are considered self-helping and constructive. But irrational tendencies are self-defeating and unhelpful. Ellis believed that these irrational tendencies manifest when we ‘consciously and unconsciously construct emotional difficulties such as self-blame, self-pity, clinical anger, hurt, guilt, shame, depression and anxiety, and behaviors such as procrastination, compulsiveness, avoidance, addiction and withdrawal .”

I could count on one hand the number of clients I have had who did not describe a desire to change at least one of these behaviours, and I would probably have fingers left over! Why is this?

Ellis would no doubt say that this is because we all possess the irrational tendencies that spawn these self-defeating behaviours. In fact, he went further, listing common irrational beliefs most of us possess:

  • It is a dire necessity for adult humans to be loved or approved by virtually every significant other person in their lives.
  • One absolutely must be competent, adequate and achieving in all respects or else one is an inadequate, worthless person.
  • People absolutely must act considerately and fairly and they are damnable villains if they do not. They are their bad acts.
  • It is awful and terrible when things are not the way one would very much like them to be.
  • Emotional disturbance is mainly externally caused and people have little or no ability to increase or decrease their dysfunctional feelings and behaviours.
  • If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome, then one should be constantly and excessively concerned about it and should keep dwelling on the possibility of it occurring.
  • One cannot and must not face life’s responsibilities and difficulties and it is easier to avoid them.
  • One must be quite dependent on others and need them and you cannot mainly run one’s own life.
  • One’s past history is an all-important determiner of one’s present behavior and because something once strongly affected one’s life, it should indefinitely have a similar effect.
  • Other people’s disturbances are horrible and one must feel upset about them.
  • There is invariably a right, precise and perfect solution to human problems and it is awful if this perfect solution is not found.
In the context of reading this post, it is easy to dismiss these as extremely irrational beliefs indeed. But look again and you will likely find at least on or two of these you have held at some point in your life, possibly weekly. And this is not an exhaustive list.

Indeed it is quite common in that a second or two after experiencing something less than a desired outcome or consequence, that one leaps to an irrational reaction. Most times we quickly rebound, talk ourselves down after the initial disappointment and then set ourselves to the task of overcoming the perceived set back. But sometimes we don’t bounce back.

The catastrophising leader can go from eager optimism to feelings of imminent doom in the blink of an eye. And it doesn’t stop there. Next stop on the catastrophising train is swings in mood and corresponding knee-jerk swings in direction and command. Then comes the blaming. In short, subordinates end up on an exhausting rollercoaster that never seems to find level track. Things are always euphoric or catastrophic. the catastrophising leader is incredibly efficient when ti comes to alienating and burning out staff. In fact, turnover and 360 degree assessments are often the quickest way to spot such leaders.

So what is to be done with the catastrophising leader?

At the core of REBT is the acceptance of cognition, emotion and behaviour as inexorably interwoven. In the eyes of an REBT practitioner, there is not one without the other. We perceive something, which triggers emotions, which in turn trigger behaviours. So the REBT process is one with training that focuses on each element — cognition, emotion, and behaviour.

It is critical that all are addressed. It is critical that we understand that our cognition is often not as accurate as we think. And our emotional reaction to our perceptions, whether accurate or not, are also often without a logical basis, and finally, that our behaviours, triggered by inaccurate perceptions and/or inappropriate emotional reactions, are also far from rational.

The REBT process is a directive process. Think of it not so much as a traditional, reflective therapy, but more like a kind of training, or retraining. It is a step by step process of unlearning old habits that are no longer appropriate or helpful, and and learning new was of perceiving, feeling, and behaving that is more appropriate, more helpful.

This is not an open-ended therapy where the goal is to achieve relief through recognition. This is concrete change in behaviour through training. It starts with cognition — really understanding yourself and the world around you. Then it continues with understanding how you feel about the world around you and why, which gives you deeper self awareness. Then, finally, you learn about how these perceptions and feelings can influence you behaviours. We work backward at first, identifying behaviours you may seek to change and tracing them back to the cognitive roots that lead to them. We then end by picking out perceptions you feel have been inaccurate, corresponding feelings that were inappropriate, and the behaviours drove. It is then we can see how a chain of change in how you see the outer world, the inner world, and how you put the two together in the form of new, more helpful behaviours.

If you decide to embark on a course of REBT I can guarantee that you will spend no time on a couch. It will be more like active study, organising observations, giving them context, and then making concrete plans for how to identify them and executing new behaviours to break old chains and create new ones. Another thing I will guarantee is that you will not leave the last session the same as when you began the first.

Curious? Give me a call.