Calm the Bomb! Learning to Lead Under Pressure [Reflections on the Boston Marathon Bombing]

Fr. Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D.

Fr. Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D.

Source: Oinos Consulting

by Fr. Frank Marangos, D. Min., Ed. D.

“I have learnt through bitter experience the supreme lesson to conserve my anger. As heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so, anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world.”  - Mahatma Gandhi

The deadly percussion of two homemade bombs shook the finish line of the Boston Marathon on our nation’s April 15th celebration of Patriots’ Day.  Fragments retrieved from the anniversary of the first skirmish in America’s war for independence suggest that the malevolent devices were each constructed from a six-litre pressure-cooker packed with gunpowder, a simple detonator, and lethal shrapnel. Nonetheless, the two unsophisticated bombs caused massive harm and horrific injuries to over180 people, severely maiming thirteen, and killing three!

Explosives, effortlessly made from kitchen pressure-cookers, have been popular with saboteurs and operatives of extremist groups for quite some time.  Instructions for their inexpensive $100 design can easily be found on the Internet. In fact, the online magazine published by al-Qaeda called, Inspire, circulated an article in 2011 called “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom.”  Predictably, the essay was aimed at motivating aspiring young anti-west terrorists.

America may never know if the al-Qaeda essay was the inspiration behind the Patriot Day initiative. Whatever the originating impulse, the devastation that was callously perpetrated upon an unsuspecting crowd that had gathered on an otherwise warm and gentle-wind spring afternoon in Boston, illustrates the danger of allowing the pressures of fanaticism to increase from that of intolerance, to anger to aggression – and explode as deadly rage!

The global stage is, undeniably, filled with anger, violence, and lethal acts of terrorism. While vigilance is required to both avert and reduce the dangers associated with such geo-political and radical-religious rage, hazards related to the pressure cooker of resentment and hate must similarly be acknowledged and suppressed in the corporate boardroom, congressional office, religious community, and private household.

How organizations, families, and individual leaders deal with pressure provides vital indicators of their leadership proficiencies. More specifically, their respective reaction to pressure will actually be an important gage of the vitality of their character, conviction, and core values. Fortunately, while most leaders are prone to buckle, some will exhibit the capacities that are necessary to thrive in the compression of their respective burdens.

Many theories of human development attempt to explain the nature, origin and sway of anger and aggression. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, for example, is celebrated for his view that aggression is a psychological defense mechanism against threats of personal fragmentation. The famed researcher insists that human personality is, by nature, a clutter of diverse biological processes over which individuals have little control.  As infants mature from adolescence into adulthood, however, they gradually begin to “pull together” a coherent identity to counterbalance their previous life experiences of fragmentation. Unfortunately, according to Lacan, this self-made and overly protective identity provides the mere “appearance” of a unified personality. In reality, it is just a psychological illusion that conceals the essential vulnerabilities of an individual.

When someone feels threatened by the truth of their essential fragmentation, the quickest, easiest, and most common defense available is, consequently, the reaction to volley an ordinance of resentment, anger, aggression, and/or rage. According to many behavioral theorists, it is through the use of this natural retaliative response that nations, organizations, and/or individuals attempt to hide the truth of their ontological weaknesses.  They do so while simultaneously conveying the illusion that they posses truth, authority, and power.

There is something terribly seductive about Lacan’s psychoanalytic model. While the framework portrays human nature as irreparably broken, an inherent “original flaw” that no one can escape, it, nonetheless, provides a dangerous and overly sympathetic validation for aggressive behavior. As such, when the need for political correctness permits the Lucan rationale the freedom to uninhibitedly run its course, the pain of facing ideological fragmentation can easily drive the intolerant, unbalanced and impressionable towards senseless and irrational acts of violence.  The Boston Marathon Bombings might, in fact, illustrate such a case and point.

Whatever religious, political, and/or psychological postulations one accepts concerning the nature of aggression, there is one that is simply undeniable – the pressure-cooker of hate is inescapable. Regrettably, many leaders learn this lesson too late in their careers.  Having been promoted to positions of leadership without the opportunities to adequately mature or learn appropriate tactics, many are unable to handle the pressures associated with misunderstanding, anger, and the resentment-based words and acts that frequently follow. When the inevitable finally occurs, countless individuals simply find themselves overwhelmed and ill prepared. Practiced leaders, on the other hand, have developed the requisite personal and interpersonal skills to deal with such pressures, knowing full well that it is never an issue of “if” but, “when,” and to “what degree,” they will be challenged to do so.

Pressure is simply the ratio of a force applied to an area over which said force is distributed or applied. The potency of pressure’s vigor, however, reaches well beyond the deadly physical impacts of its geo-religious extremist employ. The harmful effects of pressure can also be psychologically applied against a leader’s values, positions, and self-worth. In and of itself, the physics of pressure are neither good nor bad. However, like those associated with the Boston Marathon Bombing, when the unprepared, naïve, and overly sanguine are faced with the intensifications building within such a pressure cooker –– the results of casual disregard are often predictably devastating.

A pressure cooker is a specially designed kitchen utensil that includes a large pot with a locking lid, which prepares certain foods in less time than required by conventional methods. The aluminum or stainless-steal pot is placed on a stove and the liquid within begins to boil. As water typically boils at 100°C (212°F), the sealed lid prevents the steam from escaping and thereby increases the pressure in the pot. While this higher temperature drastically reduces cooking time, the moist steam serves to tenderize the ingredients.
Although pressure cookers have been around for centuries, the primary danger of older models is an exploding lid due to intense pressure within the pot. Modern pressure cookers prevent such dangerous episodes from occurring by including an array of safety mechanisms such as a pressure-release safety valve called a lubber. As the pressure builds, the lubber rattles or makes a noise as it released the excess gasses that build up from the heat.

Leaders must develop and rely on an inner lubber to ventilate the pressures associated with their responsibilities. Without such a robust inner system, the real and imaginary pressures of schedule, lack of rest, conflicts, confusion, and misunderstandings can explode.  Anger, conflict, confusion, trials, troubles, and problems will never cease. Tragically, rather than seek resolve and forgiveness, individual families as well as local religious communities are no longer immune to the build-up of trivial bitterness. As more and more people are resorting to violence to vent the pressures they feel harbored against them, schools and even neighborhood movie theaters will continue to feel anger’s deadly reach.

As with cooking, it is important for leaders to learn how to manage the mounting pressure of misunderstanding, anger, and aggression in their respective organizational workplace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor anger-based homicide is the fourth-leading cause of occupational injuries, and the leading cause of death of women in the workplace. Tragically, many of these violent acts of lethal aggression could be avoided if employees and leaders understood how to recognize violence triggers and defuse them before they explode. But what exactly can and should leaders specifically do to help vent such interpersonal pressure build-ups? How can they turn the reality of pressure from a liability to an advantage?

Leaders must learn to express all of their emotions appropriately. Specifically, they must learn to manage their anger and use it sparingly and with the intent of solving a problem for the sake of the organization. When anger is used, it should be done in a way that maintains respect for individuals, not saying anything that is demeaning, inappropriate, exaggerated or untrue.

Left unexamined, anger will typically escalate into acts of aggression and attack. When its root cause is understood, however, it may be transformed into something useful. Leaders may, therefore, choose to vent, wallow, trigger, or constructively harness the positive aspects of anger. The following specific techniques may be employed to that end.

  • Breath Slowly and Deeply
  • Avoid Confrontation
  • Hit the Pause Button
  • Reframe the Situation
  • Do Not Use Sarcasm
  • Challenge Existing Opinions
  • Re-Sculpt Personal Thought Patterns
  • Remain Mindful of How Outbursts Negatively Impact Others
  • Speak Less and Listen More
  • Apologize for any Anger Explosions
  • Do Not Downplay the Anger Of Others
  • Project Calm Composure
  • Stay Focused on The Facts
  • Be The Voice of Reason
  • Remain Flexible to the Opinion of Others
  • Leverage the Emotion

While successful leaders strive for results, great leaders also leverage the behavioral emotions that drive the finest outcomes.  Anger is a powerful emotion that can effectively shape the most positive of results.  In his autobiography (Clayborne Carson, Ed.), Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized the need for a leader to control and leverage the emotion of anger by developing the ability to remain calm.  “The system we live under,” he said, “creates hate-filled youth.  I am not interested in pressing charges against them . . . but changing the kind of system that produces their kind!”King insists that leaders “must not allow themselves to become angry and indignant . . . but willing to suffer the anger of the opponent, and yet not return anger. No matter how emotional opponents are, leaders must remain calm!”

The global stage requires leaders who can remain calm in the midst of political, economic, and religious pressure cookers. The Boston Marathon Bombing underscores this necessity by reminding us that anger, left unheeded, easily erupts into lethal acts. Leaders must, therefore, learn to manage the release valves of their respective domains. Like Marin Luther King Jr., organizational pacesetters do not currently have the luxury of hesitant thinking, but must strive to develop a strong capacity for calm and composed thinking, flexibility, and personal control.  Rather than ignore or allow themselves to get consumed by resentment, the value of such leaders will exist in their ability to channel the force of anger into creative energy, commitment, and purpose.

In the final analysis, great leaders remain calm in the midst of the ever-increasing pressures associated with personal as well as institutional aggressive indignities. They, like our nation’s former patriots, are able to recognize the dysfunctional ties within themselves and their environment and, thereby, generate the powerful drive to repair the faulty and tame the unsuitable.  This is the way King disciplined his own anger and earned the right to become a messenger of peaceful struggle.  Society yearns for similar minded leaders to emerge and calm the bombs brewing in the contemporary pressure cookers of life!

These, indeed, are the kind of “patriots” that most threaten the inflexible extremist ideologies of our nation’s enemies.   Perhaps, this explains, but does not dismisses, their anger – and the source of their hate-filled aggression towards freedom – perpetrated on an otherwise warm and gentle-wind spring afternoon in Boston!


 

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