Women in leadership: is it ever OK to "lose it"?

The debate about Serena Williams’ penalties for her behaviour during the recent American Open Final will rumble on.

There are some serious questions to answer about whether her treatment was sexist: as the wonderful Sue Barker said, “I've sat courtside watching the men ranting at umpires and (they) haven't been given a violation.”

But whether Serena is right, that she was penalised unfairly, and the official response to her behaviour was sexist - that still doesn’t take away the fact that she completely lost her temper on court.

According to Sue, “tennis was the loser” that day. And poor Osaka’s victory - the first ever Grand Slam win for a Japanese tennis player, male or female - was completely overshadowed, to the extent that she even apologised for winning.

I have to confess, I once "lost it".

I still remember with regret a meeting I chaired, where I - stressed, overworked, and overtired - bit the head off a junior colleague. He had said just said something unhelpful, but that was not the point: I completely over-reacted.

Thankfully, I quickly realised that my behaviour had been inappropriate and unfair, and apologised.

But I was quite shaken afterwards that I could have behaved like that - mainly because it was involuntary. At that moment, I was not in control of my behaviour - I was simply reacting emotionally (with inappropriate force) to a situation.

Yes, I was working incredibly hard in a very stressful job at the time, but for me, that was no excuse.

Not only was it unfair to the person I attacked, but I also felt like I had let myself down. My job, as the senior person in the room, was to set the example of mutual respect.

And as one of very few women at my level of seniority, I felt this mattered not just to my reputation, but also as female leader, and a role model to the other women in the organisation.

So what did I do about it?

I recognised that what had happened was partly because I was stressed and overtired. So I made an effort over the next few days to slow down a bit, and get my stress and energy levels in a better state.

And I also took some time to think about the importance of remaining conscious about my actions at work.

As Warren Buffet says, “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”

I was aware that there were still times when I needed to express disagreement with staff and colleagues. And sometimes (in my world of law enforcement), subtlety and calm were not sufficient - sometimes I would need to express myself forcefully to get the point across.

BUT the key difference was, in the future, this would be a CONSCIOUS CHOICE. I promised myself that I would make sure that my behaviour (even if forceful) would be deliberate, and from a place of internal calm - not a place of emotional reaction.

(And incidentally, I think the same is true today, as a parent: the times when I feel like my response to my daughter’s behaviour has been unfair are those times that I react, rather than choose to act.)

So yes, I concluded it was OK for me to “lose it” - but only if I hadn’t actually “lost it”…

What about you?

  • I suggest you consider your own workplace. What behaviour is, or is not, necessary or helpful to you, your reputation, and your ability to get stuff done? Because ultimately that’s what matters most.

  • When you have clarified that, consider what triggers might throw you off, or cause you to “lose it” for real. Take steps to avoid this (whether it means getting enough sleep, or recognising that certain people press your buttons and making a conscious effort to avoid them, or remain poised around them).

  • And never forget that you can choose your state: as humans, we have the amazing capacity to alter how we feel by changing our thoughts.

  • It helps to practice this before you feel the red mist descending: take a moment to close your eyes and take yourself back to a time where you felt peaceful, calm, and balanced. Be in that memory: see the sights, hear the sounds, feel the sensations. Make it live for you again. And repeat this regularly. Every time you visualise that moment, you reinforce that specific neural pathway, making it even easier to return there quickly in the future. Perhaps at the moment when are just about to bite the head off a colleague…

My career advice conclusion

Don’t allow a single unpremeditated, reactive moment to undermine all of your measured, thoughtful, high-quality, hard work. Especially for female leaders, who are already more likely to be seen as “emotional”.

It’s just not worth it.

What do you think? Is it ever OK to “lose it” at work, whether for real or as a conscious choice? And how do you keep yourself calm when you need to?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Kirsten Goodwin is the creator of Breakthrough without Burnout, a consciously-designed approach to career advice that enables women in leadership to fulfil their potential while achieving balance.