“What was that?” Leadership in the Face of Blow-ups

Years ago, I worked with a team that led the Field Education Program at Andover Newton Seminary, the school I serve today as dean. That team had worked together long before I arrived, and they were kind enough to share the inside jokes and shorthand they’d accrued over time. My favorite idiomatic expression they let me in on was, “What was that?” said with wide eyes and a heavy emphasis on “that.”

Here was the origin story of the saying: one member of the team had had a previous career running a daycare. During nap time one day, a small child had thrown up spectacularly while sleeping, bolted upright, and exclaimed, “What was that?” Obviously, the child had some kind of bug but hadn’t realized it. The combination of surprise, dismay, and realizing they in fact felt pretty lousy led to a useful turn of phrase years later for those working with ministers in-formation.

When they are under stress and/or amidst transformation, sometimes people pop. Maybe they don’t throw up unexpectedly, out of the blue, but they carry out the emotional equivalent of the same. They act out. They write an over-the-top manifesto of an email at 2 a.m. They do something self-destructive that runs counter to both their characters and their own best interests.

In my book Dynamic Discernment: Reason, Emotion, and Power in Change Leadership (The Pilgrim Press, 2019), I write that an outburst from an unlikely source can be a sign of generalized emotional strain in a community. The very concept of emotional systems suggests that emotions don’t belong to individuals. They are like fields of mushrooms, where that which we see is actually a mere outcropping of an interconnected, underground network.

When a leader hears of an unexpected outburst, or witnesses it, or finds themselves on the receiving end of it, they have many options — and no formula — for how to proceed. When a person blows up in a meeting and then runs out, does the leader follow after the one who ran, or stay with those who bore witness and try to continue the discussion? What happens after the meeting, and at the next one? When we get a painfully pointed email, do we ignore it; respond to it reasonably; or write back, “Let’s talk”?

I write in Dynamic Discernment that emotional issues require an emotional response. What does that mean? We need to take a page out of the emotional systems playbook and investigate how things got to the point — for that individual and for the community — where an outburst was not just possible, but necessary. If emotions are interconnected, then “What was that?” moments are important for leaders and communities to understand.

Some eruptions are “about” the eruptor, but most are about something bigger: generalized exhaustion, systemic unhappiness, chronic anxiety. Systems theory scholars call those who pop on behalf of the whole “symptom-bearers”. They enact what the emotional system needs, discharging tension that the system can’t tolerate. When they throw up, they’re doing so for everyone.

In such cases, the leader needs to ensure that the one who blows up doesn’t end up scapegoated; they served a purpose for the emotional system, however unwittingly they might have done so. Although damage they cause is their fault, and its repair their responsibility, it’s not just about them.

A second responsibility for the leader is to monitor the overall tension building up in the system. Anxiety is like the air in a balloon. It expands when things heat up, sometimes more than the pliability of the community can accommodate. Balloons pop at their weak points. Leaders can shore up the weak points, but they are better off keeping the pressure down by (1) addressing issues when they come up, (2) turning down heat through kindness and gentleness, and (3) reducing sources of systemic stress.

Sometimes leaders can address systemic emotional issues head-on by asking, “How did we get here? Where do we need to go next?” Other times, they’re better off softening themselves so as to lessen the impact of a blow. And then they should cancel something nobody really wants to do. Bring in doughnuts. Replace one or two burdens with blessings. Leaders can always circle back later on what can be learned from a past outburst, after the cleanup is complete and the virus has moved on to another tummy.

Finally, leaders can work on themselves. Ugh, I know. But communities mirror their leaders. If a leader has poor emotional self-management, and even is the one blowing up half the time, the community can’t find emotional health. Leaders must take good care of their emotional well-being by keeping pressure inside our balloons manageable, and preventing our balloon’s weak spots from becoming too thin.

That leaders have to release their stress and tend to their own anxieties, lest they become ineffective in the face of conflict or even its cause, is nothing new. I close with these words from the prophet Jeremiah (20:9), who really would have liked God to have picked another mouthpiece.

If I say, ‘I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name’,
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.

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Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.