By Jim Davis, Ed.M., MA

Gabor Maté is a genius. A holocaust survivor turned physician, turned game-changing psychologist, his new book, The Myth of Normal, is changing the way people understand their experience – and themselves, and the default structures and cultures of the professional world.

These 3 Keys represent a leadership heuristic derived from his research. He does not package it this way, I do. Clients have found it to be helpful, so I’m happy to pass it along.

The Mad Scientist

Imagine an old science classroom with test tubes and beakers full of different colored concoctions, some of them ready to bubble over the lip of the glass. For a moment, think of this as your inner emotional laboratory. YOU are the mad scientist standing above it all, protective glasses on, hair standing on end (or not).

Each beaker represents your regulatory capacity in a given realm. There will be a Compassion beaker, a Resilience beaker, an Empathy beaker and, for the sake of this metaphor, an Anger beaker.

Focus on the Anger beaker. As the beaker begins to fill, we only have so long before it spills over. When an environmental or situational cue creates an anger response (totally healthy and appropriate in certain situations), the liquid in the beaker begins to rise.

This is the first thing to recognize. We cannot select when emotions arise. They are natural byproducts of our experience, influenced by countless factors, and constantly occurring.

Tough guys, you experience sadness. Sensitive folks, you feel anger, competitiveness, and ambition just like the rest of us. It is undeniable. As Dr. Maté says, “When energy is created, it’s created. It’s there.” Emotions are happening whether or not we are willing to recognize or express them. The goal of this work is emotion regulation, not emotional denial.

You, as the scientist overseeing the laboratory of your Self, need to regulate that anger by processing and disposing of it in a controlled way. Anger is not bad, after all; uncontrolled anger almost certainly is.

As Dr. Gabor Maté says, “When energy is created, it’s created. It’s there.” Emotions are happening whether or not we are willing to recognize or express them. The goal of this work is emotion regulation, not emotional denial.

So we learn to regulate. We find ways to pour out a little at a time. We create space. Eventually, if we are willing to work on it, we expand the capacity of our beaker while consistently developing tools and strategies for effective regulation. This process is occurring mostly under the radar. But every so often, spills happen. Recognize that and forgive them fast – your ‘forgiveness beaker’ should be HUGE. As the scientist, keep doing the work to expand capacity, limit exposure to stimuli that would overfill the beaker, and be aware of beakers that are approaching their limit.

If we don’t, we become volatile. We become unpredictable and, ultimately, read as unsafe to those in our charge. Leaders who create unsafe working environments are never successful. At least not for long.

The mad scientist has beakers spilling over in every direction. The thoughtful leader gains control over their lab.

The Gabor Maté Leader

As mentioned, the Gabor Maté leadership keys are not driven by leadership research, per se. They are driven by deep study of relationship dynamics and human needs. It stands to reason that many of the concepts that make for successful friendly, familial, and romantic relationships also apply to professional ones. So, based on decades of research, we find ourselves with 3 Keys that any good leader or organization will want to address:

  • Work on Yourself
  • Create Secure Attachments
  • Get Creative with Peers

One. Work on Yourself.

The oft-cited air travel directive is, in the event of an emergency, apply your own oxygen mask before reaching out to support another. It’s a powerful idea. There’s nothing wrong with the romantic, heroic notion of putting others before oneself, but heroism comes at a price. If you neglect yourself too often, too intensely, or for too long, you will limit your ability to do good by others.

In my own work, a significant amount of reflection allowed an opportunity to recognize that my regulation strategies were falling short. Instead of honoring my anger and processing it well, I was turning down the volume on its expression. But it was always there. I never addressed the core issue. To my employees, I would occasionally read as frustrated or disappointed in them, even when I didn’t feel that way. My beaker was always about ¼ full.

3 Keys to the Gabor Mate Leadership Style: 1) Work on Yourself, 2) Create Secure Attachments, 3) Get Creative with Peers

I had to practice some personal empathy. I had to dig deep and ask myself hard questions. I set upon a process guided by my own research and reflection, combined with guidance from skilled professionals in psychology, leadership, psychotherapy, and organizational design, to eventually set me on a healthy and more effective path.

The effect has been so positive that I’ve committed to sharing it with as many people as possible, starting with my individual clients.

It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. As Dr. Maté suggests, work on yourself first.

Two. Create Secure Attachments

Attachment styles stem from a well-investigated body of research. In a family, they are developed in childhood and evolve through the years. In a company, it begins right alongside onboarding, and continues on a daily basis. These developed styles impact all sorts of relationships down the road.

One client I work with feels as though he is under constant scrutiny. It is unclear whether he is or is not in an objective way… but it is quite clear that he does not feel secure. He does not feel inherently trusted and valuable within his organization, due to near-constant micromanagement and a barrage of remote-communication. I don’t know many people who text, email, slack, zoom, and call more than he does.

His beaker for withstanding professional judgement is always full, always about to bubble over.

“Secure attachments within an organization make people feel trusted and valued… More institutional trust creates more capacity to engage with critique and feedback.”

The worst part about all this communication is that he does not necessarily see its impact. The impact, as he sees it, is the dodging of further scrutiny. If he responds promptly, he won’t be critiqued for not responding, no matter how petty the communication request may seem.

It’s stressful. And he does not feel like he’s advancing. To him, organizational communication feels like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. There’s no way to really win… “it’s exhausting” he explains.

On a practical level, it is wise to examine communication expectations within your organization. It is especially wise to examine the attachment style sitting beneath the communication. Do people communicate with one another in order to do good work? Or do they communicate to not get in trouble? To not feel judged? To not lose the fickle and fleeting version of trust that colors the organization?

Secure attachments within an organization make people feel trusted and valued. It expands the capacity of their beaker. More institutional trust creates more capacity to engage with critique and feedback.

And it’s ethically obvious: people are people first, employees second. Which does not mean that their actions as employees don’t matter – quite the contrary. Valuing the human within a trusting culture allows for true accountability, shared responsibility, and high-level pursuit of shared goals.

Three. Get Creative with Peers

Once a leader has worked on herself, and the relationships within an organization are secure, we can get truly creative and do meaningful work.

Without those first two components, employees report an unwillingness to be truly creative. They are hesitant to share ideas. They are wary of a volatile leader and might dance around unsecure attachments with peers. They never really get to the good stuff.

“I sat on my [idea] for the whole [f’ing] zoom. I thought it was good, but I also watched the guys before me get smashed every time they threw [an idea] out there,” said one of my clients after a meeting with an especially volatile boss.

Does this sound familiar? “I sat on my [idea] for the whole [f’ing] zoom. I thought it was good, but I also watched the guys before me get smashed every time they threw [an idea] out there,” said one of my clients after a meeting with an especially volatile boss.

The energy an employee might have to get creative is spend spent emptying and adjusting other beakers on the table. By the time they get an opportunity to create new ideas to advance the company, their bandwidth is severely taxed.

Get good ideas out of the dark. With those first two pieces in place, the third piece becomes possible and it’s good for obvious reasons – the nonobvious reasons are equally meaningful. This creative atmosphere rises the tide of the organization. Not only are there more good ideas floating around the office, but there is more honest feedback, more novel ideas that stem from that feedback, and a true opportunity for what we call High-Order growth. The pinnacle of an organization’s capacity is only possible if it has not been prematurely cut down at the knees.

Not to be overlooked: getting creative as a group in service of a shared purpose is fun.

Put all three of these keys together, and you are well on your way to creating an organization that can bring its mission to life.

The Biggest Beakers

Forgiveness should be one of the biggest beakers in your lab. Things go wrong. Humans are infinitely complex and (depending on your perspective) flawed. “I’ve made every mistake in every book I’ve ever written” admits Maté. We should all work on patience, humility, and forgiveness.

Then, work on what you need. Leaders, do some self-reflection. Are there are beakers in your lab that are filling up to fast? Anger? Frustration? Resentment? Apathy? Look closely and be honest with yourself.

Your current pain points can serve as a guide to your next steps. If you are in a fast-paced industry, do you need to find patience? If you are in a human-driven field, do you need empathy? Create great capacity in those areas and build associated skills. This is the meaningful work standing between where you are as a leader, and where you want to be.

So you – the mad scientist hovering above the laboratory of your Self – would be wise to follow Gabor Maté’s three keys. Start with foundational, bedrock concepts; start with yourself. From there, you can build anything.

And for support along this journey, do not hesitate to REACH OUT.

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