Steward Leaders: On Being Good Stewards of Anger

Posted by Matthew Thomas

Subscribe to  Sustainable Vision

matthew-thomas-2.jpgA few weeks ago, a particularly monochromatic vessel for a typically-caffeinated beverage from a particular nationally-known dispenser of such beverages made the news. First, it made the news because someone was outraged by the vessel's blankness. Shortly thereafter, it made news because many others were outraged that someone would be outraged in the first place. Finally, there was outrage that the outrage about the outrage had carried on so long, and was so pointless.


As leaders, we quickly discover that anger is a powerful tool - as well as a disruptive presence. Our own anger can rally others to our cause - particularly when our anger resonates with others'; our own anger can create space between us and those who oppose us as well. Anger and outrage give us the simultaneous power of push and pull, as well as, in many cases, some kind of moral high ground.


Like what you're reading? Subscribe Now! In American political discourse of late, we see outrage used by leaders of all branches and levels of government, both in the election process and while in office. Outrage has become a competitive sport - who can be the most outraged about what, and say or do the most outrageous thing to bring their outrage to light. Outrage polarizes and partisanizes, and then becomes outraged at the gridlock that results.


Our workplaces are often conflicted - "office politics", some cry; others have a management-union split; still others bring political, philosophical, family, or religious conflicts into the workplace. These can generate anger and contention among workers that reduces our organizational capacity to meet our goals.


(Related: Doing Good While Doing Well)


Left unchecked, anger, outrage, and rage devour everything in their path - and often violently. Feeding on them isolates people into smaller and smaller units - even dividing people against their own selves.


Steward leadership urges us to steward anger as well. Anger is both natural and powerful. It can be channeled to accomplish good things. It is firmly an appropriate emotional response to injustice. That's where the moral high ground comes in.


Anger separates, drains, and exhausts. Its only sustenance is finding something else to consume and push away. As steward leaders, we find ways to use anger creatively to motivate toward healthy, sustainable action - not just to draw others into a malevolent maelstrom. We find ways of using anger to put an end to violence, rather than turning violence toward others.


These days, we hear little of virtue - the term itself seems a bit Quixotic to our ears. Yet, with the need to steward anger, it seems apt. Plato's civic virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice (Republic IV.427e) all, in their own way, help us steward anger. Prudence, or wisdom, helps us to choose what really should motivate us to action. Courage, as Plato says, helps us choose what should and should not be feared (ibid., IV, 430b). Temperance makes sure we are not just driven by our desires, but our desires driven by our will. Justice leads us to true judgement and reconciliation, not just using (self-) righteous indignation as a proxy for making things right.


Perhaps these virtues are the missing piece to what to do with all of our outrage.


I'm curious to see how you steward anger in your organization. How do you manage the use of virtue? If you wouldn't mind, e-mail me  and let me know how you see anger, and virtue at work.


We'd also like to provide you with a resource describing the balance of decision-making process: more reflective, or more active? Which way do you tend?

Tao of action-reflection, primer on process

Read More ›

Topics: steward leaders, Matthew Thomas, steward leader, steward leadership, virtue, Anger, Starbucks cup controversy