Leadership, Emotion, and the Daily Question

The first time I was shot at I was in Afghanistan as an FBI Special Agent attached to the 75th Ranger Regiment in 2010. As I was running, my legs got heavy and I thought for a split second I was going to fall. Fortunately for me, and the people around me who were counting on me to be at my best and most alert, the moment was fleeting, barely registering in time. Why was I able to recover so quickly and get back into the fight? Because I immediately recognized the emotions I felt as the first shot rang out.

Recognizing my emotions was something I began to work on in the early 90’s as a young Navy SEAL Officer. Throughout my career as a Naval Officer, both as a Navy SEAL and Surface Warfare Officer, or “ship driver”, I did many things well. I also did many things poorly. As I reflect on both the good and bad decisions I made as a young man, and there were plenty of both, there is one common denominator; my ability to recognize my emotions before I acted.

Combat is the ultimate expression of consequence. When poor, or emotional, decisions are made in combat, the ultimate consequence of these decisions can cost lives. The processes for ensuring that good, unemotional decisions are made in combat is the same process we can use in the private sector and in our personal lives. It’s simple to understand, but hard to execute. Welcome to leadership!

Combat jumping provides a nice, easy example of what I’m talking about. As a Navy SEAL, jumping out of an airplane was never one of my favorite things to do. Neither was jumping out of an airplane into the ocean. Neither was jumping out of an airplane into the ocean in the middle of the night. Recognizing my emotions became a necessity for me as a SEAL operator and leader. Jumping out of an airplane scared me. I understood, however, that this fear did not preclude me from actually jumping and doing my job well.

My first free fall jump was a disaster. I missed all my protocols and pulled my rip cord at about the lowest safe altitude, right before the instructor almost pulled my rip cord for me. The protocols were simple. Check altitude, clear air space, pull. Not exactly rocket science. After we landed, my instructor provided me one very clear, unambiguous message: “One more jump like that and I’ll personally make sure you never jump out of another airplane again…Sir.” The “Sir” was added as a reminder that I was an officer. A leader by definition and therefor expected to do things correctly. I had 20 minutes to re-pack my parachute and get on the plane for my second jump. I had 20 minutes to collect myself and figure out how to get this right.

This 20 minutes was a moment for me that needed complete clarity and honesty. I realized I had been kidding myself before the jump. I was convincing myself that I was calm and collected. In fact, I convinced myself I was so calm and collected that all the required urgency left me, and I casually blew through all the necessary protocols, potentially putting people’s safety at risk. I quickly came to grips with the fact that I was not calm and collected. I was the opposite. I was afraid.

Once I made this admission to myself, a funny thing happened. My mind became clear. I did not lose the fear. In fact, I never lost the fear of jumping. But, as soon as I acknowledged I was afraid I was able to put it aside and focus on all the things I needed to do as I was falling through the air. My subconscious, my unacknowledged fear, was no longer dominating my thoughts and actions. My conscious mind took over and allowed me to focus on the task at hand in-spite of my fear.

There were two formulas at play during my first failed jump and my next, successful, jump. The first formula basically relied on luck to succeed and could have easily cost me, or worse…others, our lives: TRIGGER to IMPULSE to BEHAVIOR. The idea of jumping triggered an impulse, or emotion. In my case the emotion was fear. This fear led to a behavior, which was inaction (or, thankfully, late action).

The successful formula for my second jump added two steps: TRIGGER to IMPULSE to AWARENESS to CHOICE to BEHAVIOR. The TRIGGER and IMPULSE remained the same. But the AWARENESS of my fear and the CHOICE to perform my necessary actions, despite my fear, led to a truly calm and unemotional BEHAVIOR.

The problem I had back then was consistency. I would concentrate on adding AWARENESS and CHOICE to my behavior equation during operations. However, I would dismiss it during less intense times at work or in my personal life. The inconsistency in my behavior confounded me and others. I know it confounded others, especially my superiors, because they told me. They would express confusion at my ability to run operations at such a high level, but then seemingly lose focus at other times. The inconsistency was due in large part because I was only subconsciously adding AWARENESS and CHOICE to my BEHAVIOR equation. Consistency in managing the triggers and emotions in our lives comes with only conscious awareness.

Inconsistency is the one most consistent elements of behavioral change. We decide to work on a behavior and will make true effort for the one or two days only to realize a week later we have not done anything lately to improve. How do we find the consistency we need?

The answer became crystal clear to me after becoming a Marshall Goldsmith Certified Coach. As part of the certification we studied Dr. Goldsmith’s book, Triggers. It was then I was able to put together the cause of my inconsistencies, especially as a young Navy SEAL Officer. It also led me to discover why I was able to perform at such a high level during the most dangerous operations.

The high-pressure situations faced during SEAL operations naturally forced me to become clear about what was triggering my emotions and how I instinctively behaved in the face of those emotions. These high-pressure situations also forced me to understand that I needed to become aware of triggers and emotions and then decide how I needed to act. It was the intensity of the situations that forced me to think this way. Otherwise, random decisions I made based on emotional responses to triggers could very well have gotten someone killed. What I know clearly now is that this progression of thought in combat situations is exactly the same thought process we should be undertaking at every turn in our personal lives as well. Combat provides a heightened awareness of the consequences of our actions, but also shows that the decision-making process for every decision we make is the same, or at least should be the same; TRIGGER to IMPULSE to AWARENESS to CHOICE to BEHAVIOR.

The consistency to achieve behavioral change comes in the form of The Daily Question, which is outlined in Marshall Goldsmith’s book Triggers. It is a simple, but amazingly effective tool for providing consistency in our quest for behavioral change and something I wish I knew about years ago.

Here’s how it works: Identify one or two behaviors you’d like to correct or improve upon. At the end of the day ask yourself, “Did I do my best to…?” The daily question is designed to measure your effort, not the zero-sum equation of whether you did or did not do something. At the end of the day, score yourself on the effort you put forward to accomplish your desired behavioral change. A score of 1 means you never even gave your behavior a thought during the day; no effort whatsoever. A score of 10 means you were hyper aware of the behavior you were working on all day and made every effort throughout the day to perform your desired behavior.

Let’s go back to my example about recognizing my emotions. Even today, my emotions are what drives everything I do and if I don’t always recognize my emotions I will act without thinking. Again, a potentially deadly proposition, both figuratively and literally. I wish as a young man I knew to ask myself every day, “Did I do my best to recognize my emotions throughout the day?” I could add a second question as well, “Did I do my best to control my actions after recognizing my emotions?” It would have been so much easier to consciously ask myself these questions before high-risk operations, like my combat jumping example. But, more importantly, it would have provided consistency in my everyday life by allowing me to recognize the primary driver in my inconsistent behavior outside of the high-risk situations being a Navy SEAL put me in.  I would have been more consistent in my personal relationships or while performing the mundane tasks during the day that are necessary but drove me crazy.

What’s your behavior? Diet is always a popular behavior people are looking to improve on. Listen to the difference between the zero-sum question and the daily question that measures your effort. “Did I eat a good diet today?” Let’s say you ate well, except for that bowl of ice cream right before bed. By asking a basic yes or no question like “Did I eat a good diet today?” you are held to a standard of perfection. Regardless of how well you ate during the entire day, that bowl of ice cream just gave you a grade of, “NO!”. Let’s look at the other option.

“Did I do my best to eat a good diet today?” Maybe you are at dinner with friends and you have a healthy entree, but you had ice cream for desert. But instead of having a Coke with dinner you drank unsweetened tea or water. And, you didn’t have a piece of pie with your ice cream. You love Coke and apple pie a la mode! But today you did better. “Did you do your best to eat a good diet today?” Maybe you give yourself a score of six because while you were not perfect, you did do better. And maybe after a few days of fives and sixes, you’d like to start seeing sevens and eights…so you try harder…and you get better.

That first time getting shot at in Afghanistan? I’ll never forget the sequence of events that went through my head. “Shots fired. Fear. Exhilaration. My legs are heavy. Adrenaline dump. Don’t fight it, go with it. What’s my job? Cover my field of fire, cover the men in front of me. Get back to work.” Today I consciously go through this drill with every emotion I get throughout the day, or at least I do my best to. And at the end of the day I ask myself, “Did I do my best to recognize my emotions throughout the day?” And today I ask myself these questions overwhelmingly at the most important place any leader leads…at home.

I’m not perfect, but I’m far more consistent than I used to be because I ask myself The Daily Question for the behavior that is most important to me. Is The Daily Question simple to understand? Yes. Is The Daily Question easy to execute? Not always. Welcome to leadership!

Errol Doebler is the founder of Ice Cold Leader, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Ice Cold Leader to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Errol provides executive coachingkeynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.

For more information on what Errol has been up to lately, visit www.icecoldleader.com.

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