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Containing Abusive Behavior

While modeling ways to change, followers may also need to help leaders contain abusive behavior until they can transform it. For example, a leader who screams needs to modify this behavior while working to transform the underlying causes. Otherwise, the bond between the leader, followers, and common purpose is severely weakened.

Anger is a potentially creative tool if it is not repressed nor allowed to get out of control. It can be used as an emotional sensor to detect something wrong that cannot yet be fully articulated. Learning to see repressed anger and invite its verbal expression can prevent the anger from reaching a boiling point where it becomes abusive.

But in leaders who display sudden, explosive anger, the emotional energy is so great that it demands physical release before the underlying situation can be verbalized and explored. A courageous follower coaching a leader in alternatives to abusive ranting might consider the following:

Anger triggers the “fight or flight” mechanism; the adrenalin this pumps through the system must be released.

In a person who slowly builds up anger, excess adrenalin can be drained by regular physical exercise; many people who work closely with leaders know what a difference exercise makes to their leaders’ temperament.

In leaders who become suddenly overwhelmed with anger, it is more difficult finding socially acceptable outlets for the adrenalin; behavior such as throwing things, fist banging, and hurling epithets intimidates others and is abusive.

Ideally, mechanisms for releasing the anger would be used by the leader in private, but sometimes an otherwise highly regarded leader cannot exert the self-control to do this. In this case, it may help to have tools available for the leader’s use when needed.

While it may seem strange, it is far less intimidating behavior for a leader convulsed with anger to dissipate it by twisting a golf towel or squeezing a soft chair, while repeating a nondirective epithet such as “damn,” than to verbally abuse followers. A quick walk around the block will further dampen the surge of stress hormones.

In a quieter moment, the leader can explain why she is doing this; the objective is to release the physical energy without wounding people with verbal shrapnel and threatening behavior.

Efforts at transforming abuse are not a license to continue the abuse. Since abusive behavior is immature, when courageous followers set limits on what they will tolerate, it helps leaders contain the behavior. Containing abusive behavior buys leaders the time they need to explore the roots of the behavior and work through the transformation process.