Mental health & wellbeing

How leaders can deal with overlooked emotions by using an inner “lookout”

Martin Kovacs /

Leaders may be accustomed to focusing on all that is going on around them as they seek to ensure the best possible outcomes for their organisation.

However, not paying attention to what is going on within themselves can be extremely detrimental, according to The New York Times bestselling author and Harvard Law School negotiation lecturer Erica Ariel Fox

“This is a costly oversight,” Fox says in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

“There is a straight line from the inner life of a leader to the actions they take, the relationships they build and the impact they create. You can’t understand what’s going wrong around you if you don’t understand what’s going on inside you.”

To avoid falling into this trap, Fox recommends that leaders develop an inner “lookout”.

Looking after yourself

Fox describes an inner “lookout” as the part of yourself that pays “attention to what’s happening inside you”, drawing parallels with how retail staff ‘look out’ for shoplifters in department stores.

Everyone has an inner lookout that takes note of sensations or reactions, such as how your stomach may tighten in stressful situations, and in turn draw attentions to what might be otherwise overlooked feelings

While your lookout is likely already helping you to avoid destructive behaviours, in situations where there is a lot at stake, it can be harder to think clearly and emotions may bubble over. Your perspective may alter and survival instincts kick in.

“Without using your lookout, you’ll follow these instincts wherever they take you,” Fox writes.

“That’s how you end up in bed at night, wondering how things went off the rails. When you feel calm again, it can be hard to imagine why you acted the way you did.

“If you rarely slow down and catch your breath, you might be living in this state quite often.”

Getting started

Fox says making better use of your lookout takes practice, and as is the case with using any new skill, it can take some time to see results.

The first step is taking an inventory by checking in with yourself once a day to ask how you are feeling, whether your body is calm or agitated and if you notice any other physical sensations.

It is then important to detach yourself from your feelings and give them a label, such as “cynicism” or feeling “discouraged”, says Fox.

You can also regularly take notes based on what your lookout is telling you about yourself.

Fox notes that reacting to situations is not the problem, “it’s not noticing your reactions”.

“Exercises like these tap into the Lookout’s perspective,” she says.

“That enables you to observe and notice your internal experience in real time.

“By practising in moments of low stress, you’ll hone your lookout skills. Then when the stakes are high and the heat is on, your lookout will recognise what’s happening and let you know before you do things you’ll regret later.”

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Martin Kovacs

Martin Kovacs is a journalist with experience covering the IT, consumer electronics, retail, finance and energy sectors.

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