The Dustup


The Dustup

However, while most top professionals use anger sparingly, few invincible executives of any age try to suppress their anger entirely. "Anger is a tactic, not an emotion," a two-star army special operations general told me several months back. In the military, there is no doubt that your sergeant or commanding officer is going to yell and scream at you. But you know from the beginning that the person is not really mad at you—rather it is a tactic to promote discipline. As contradictory as it sounds, there is a way to distill the emotion out of the anger, leaving just the anger to be used in an appropriate, controlled manner.

Jim Parker, CEO of Southwest Airlines, agrees. "Sometimes you need to use anger to deliver a message forcefully." He adds, however, that "you can only display anger after you have had a chance to do some serious intellectual reflection." You cannot fly off the handle and lose control. Rather, you have to decide that anger is the appropriate tactic in a given situation.

Former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole notes that some of his colleagues in the United States Senate had fiery tempers, but again, they did not lose control when they were unhappy with an opponent or colleague. According to Dole, they had a motto: "Use your temper, don't lose your temper." Good politicians consider loss of temper to be a valuable tactic in carefully planned situations. Former prosecutor and prominent Democrat Ed Dowd makes the same point when he says, "You cannot let your anger use you."

For example, former Senator, Special Counsel, and diplomat John Danforth is an Episcopal priest known for his calm and respectful demeanor. Many of his staffers say they have never seen him get mad. But even he will tell you that sometimes it is necessary to have a "dustup"—as he calls it—in order to achieve a particular and specific political end.

For example, when Attorney General Reno appointed Danforth Special Counsel to investigate the Waco tragedy, he had to contend with a parallel congressional investigation led by fellow Republican Senator Arlen Specter. Danforth did not believe that parallel investigations would be productive. He discussed the matter with Senator Specter and thought he had secured an agreement with his fellow Republicans that the congressional investigation would stop. However, Danforth soon learned that one of Senator Specter's investigators was at Waco interviewing people.

Danforth called his staff in and said with a smile, "It's time for a little dustup." He instructed one staffer to draft a righteously indignant letter to Senator Specter and copy the letter to the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter was curt and to the point, but not aggressive. At Danforth's direction, the letter used none of the adjectives such as "outrageous" or "ludicrous" that tend to characterize angry correspondence and, obviously, the letter contained no profanity. But the anger was clear simply from its succinct exposition of the facts—a promise made and a promise broken.

Danforth then instructed another staff member to call all the key witnesses in Waco and direct them not to speak with the congressional investigators—even if it put Danforth in contempt of Congress for interfering with a congressional inquiry. "Let them haul the Special Counsel into Congress on contempt charges," he said. "That would be great." He knew they would never do it.

Needless to say, Danforth's letter was made public by the Democrats, and the witnesses who had been told not to cooperate with Congress also made public statements to that effect as well. The Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were outraged and made all kinds of emotional, threatening statements to the media and elsewhere that stood in marked contrast to Senator Danforth's more controlled use of anger. And guess what happened? After a meeting, the Republicans who controlled the Judiciary Committee wrote Senator Danforth a letter agreeing to stop their investigation.

Danforth's tactical use of anger worked for several reasons that characterize the personality of the invincible executive. First, Dan-forth used anger sparingly. He had developed the reputation as a peaceful Episcopal priest, so when he did get angry, people took note. Second, he never exhibited emotion in a public forum. He did not write nasty e-mails, leave aggressive voice mails, or go in front of the camera ranting and raving. Rather, he tactically placed a very businesslike letter such that he looked like he was the reasonable one. Third, he let others—the Democrats and the witnesses—get his message out. He never made any public statement that could be cut and pasted or distorted by someone who did not have his well-being at heart. He had mastered the art of the tactical use of anger.