What I Learned from Crashing a Jet: Part 6
While most of the lessons I took away from my accident were philosophical, the most significant insight came 25 years later. It has impacted my view of the world, outlook on life, and role as a leadership coach. But the funniest thing is that it all comes down to a sense of awareness and a choice. How do I engage with my difficult emotions?
Groundbreaking research by Alis Anagnostakis in leadership development has illuminated a powerful truth: A key to personal growth lies in our ability to confront difficult emotions with curiosity (Anagnostakis, 2022). In a world where emotional uneasiness often leads to avoidance or suppression — practices that I did early in my career — those who choose to welcome discomfort and explore it with an open mind find themselves on a transformative journey toward becoming more effective leaders.
The public nature of my accident left me feeling vulnerable and yielded a dilemma as a leader. How can I ask others to do things “by the book” when I failed to do so early in my career? This was a breeding ground of complex emotions that still linger. I often hid these questions and distracted myself with other tasks to avoid the pain — compartmentalization, a skill I learned in flight training. However, my introduction to vertical development at the US Naval War College sparked a learning journey that continues to this day and led me to the work of Dr. Alis Anagnostakis.
Anagnostakis revealed that individuals in a leadership development program who actively engaged with the awkwardness of emotions showed measurable progress in the way they make meaning of the world around them — growth highlighted by theorists such as Robert Kegan and Bill Torbert (Anagnostakis, 2022). They became more aware of their emotions and proactively responded to them. Instead of shying away from disorienting dilemmas that triggered unpleasant feelings, these individuals embraced the discomfort as an opportunity for growth.
What sets these individuals apart is their capacity to temper negative emotions by accessing a contrasting, more positive emotion — curiosity. Instead of succumbing to fear, frustration, or anxiety, they approached their feelings inquisitively and used the spirit of inquiry as a powerful tool for self-discovery and transformation.
Why is choosing curiosity over avoidance so crucial in our leadership journey?
First, emotions are like messengers from our inner selves, carrying valuable information about our assumptions, thoughts, and beliefs. As the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett shows, emotions alert us when the narrative we tell ourselves does not align with our world — our “brain invisibly constructs everything [we] experience, including emotions” (Barrett, 2017, p. 32). When we avoid or suppress these emotions, we miss crucial insights that can guide our personal and professional growth. Curiosity, on the other hand, encourages us to listen to these messengers and learn from them.
Second, growth seldom occurs within our comfort zones — we must embrace discomfort. By accepting uneasiness, we create a space for personal evolution. When we confront difficult emotions with curiosity, we step outside our comfort zones and into self-discovery. We can develop greater self-awareness.
Third, Anagnostakis’ research emphasizes the role of ownership in the developmental outcome of a program — it is a choice that can empower us. Those who choose curiosity are not passive recipients of knowledge; they become co-authors of their learning journey. They actively participate, engage with peers and content, and take their newfound knowledge into real-world experiments.
Fourth, it builds resilience and adaptability. Leaders often face challenging situations that evoke a range of emotions. Those who have cultivated curiosity as a response to discomfort are better equipped to navigate these situations with resilience and adaptability. They can explore various perspectives and solutions, fostering a culture of innovation and growth within themselves and their teams.
Finally, we can be a source of inspiration for our team. Leaders who choose to respond to difficult emotions with curiosity inspire those around them. Their openness to vulnerability and willingness to learn creates an environment where team members feel safe to do the same. This, in turn, fosters a culture of continuous improvement and collaboration.
So, how can we start to embrace curiosity in our leadership development journey?
Here are five practices that can help us:
Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness, meditation, and self-reflection are powerful tools for developing emotional awareness. They help us observe our emotions without judgment, creating a space for curiosity to flourish — what Jon Wergin calls mindful learning (Wergin, 2020). When we start to feel a complex emotion, we can take a moment to pause and name it. What are we feeling? Where do we feel it in our body?
Ask Questions: When sensing discomfort, ask ourselves, “Why am I feeling this way? What is this emotion trying to tell me? What can I learn from this experience?” These inquiries shift our focus from avoidance to exploration.
Seek Feedback from Someone We Trust: Actively seek feedback from peers, mentors, or coaches. Talking to someone we trust can be a great way to process difficult emotions. They can offer support and understanding and help us see our situation differently. We can embrace their constructive criticism with curiosity, viewing it as an opportunity for improvement rather than a personal attack.
Experiment and Learn: Apply what we have learned from our emotional exploration to real-world situations. We can experiment with new approaches and strategies and be open to the results, whether they confirm or challenge our expectations. This is why the Immunity to Change exercise developed by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey is so profound in adult development — it actively takes us through the process of uncovering the big assumptions behind our emotions and designing a test to learn about them in the real world (Kegan & Lahey, 2009).
Cultivate a Growth Mindset: We must embrace the belief that our abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication and hard work. This mindset shift encourages curiosity and a willingness to learn from setbacks and challenges.
The research conducted by Alis Anagnostakis underscores the profound impact of choosing curiosity over avoidance when we are confronted with difficult emotions. We embark on a transformative journey of self-discovery and personal growth by welcoming discomfort and exploring it with an open mind. A lesson that has taken me a half-century to learn. As aspiring leaders, we must take the helm of our learning, actively participating in our development and inspiring others to do the same.
So, the next time you encounter a challenging emotion, remember to greet it with curiosity — it may lead you to the next level of your leadership journey. What difficult emotions have you wrestled with lately? How can you apply curiosity to help you? What are you learning about yourself?
P.S. — Do you want to grow as a leader? Get curious with a coach and learn how your emotions may be holding you and your team back from success. Find out more right here to resurrect your potential.
Anagnostakis, A. (2022). Fostering conscious leadership: Exploring leaders’ experience of vertical development in the context of an executive leadership program [Doctoral dissertation, University of the Sunshine Coast]. Queensland.
Barrett, L. F. (2017). How Emotions Are Made. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 32.
Kegan, R. and Lisa Laskow Lahey (2009). Immunity to Change. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Wergin, J. (2020). Deep Learning in a Disorienting World. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 53.