As a leadership consultant, I’ve made a career of helping executives heal the wounds they’ve inflicted, and mend the trust they’ve broken with their anger. I’ve seen uncontrolled anger ruin careers, and I know this to be a major derailment factor for senior executives.  My position is clear that “anger is not a leadership skill.”  However, I also learned years ago that anger, when used judiciously, can also be a very effective tool.

RG Goodfellow was the ultimate scoutmaster. A teacher and principal by training, he was completely devoted to scouting, and to us scouts. He was also the mildest mannered man I’ve ever known. I only saw him get angry once.  And when that happened, the earth cracked and the heavens opened.

The year I became an Eagle Scout, I was one of three senior scouts empowered by RG to run the troop. For six months, Richard, Mike and I worked with the younger scouts, teaching them outdoor skills that would ultimately be tested in a competition against other troops at a big “Camporee.” We had worked hard, and were proud of what our troop was capable of.

The competition kicked off Saturday morning with an assembly of troops reporting in military formation around a central flagpole.  That morning, Mike, Richard and I attempted to gather our “herd of cats” with no success. Some were off exploring the woods, some were still in sleeping bags, and others were amusing themselves with glowing sticks pulled from the fire. None demonstrated a desire to show up for the competition despite our rigorous preparations.

Noticing our futile attempts to rally our troop, RG’s faced reddened. I could almost see his blood beginning to boil.  Finally, he slammed his coffee cup down, and stalked the camp with a dangerous glare in his eye. I remembered thinking he looked like an irritated panther I’d seen at the Memphis Zoo, angrily pacing his cage ready to rip something (or someone) apart. Richard saw this look, once, years before, as a student in RG’s classroom.   He grabbed Mike and me, and suggested we back away, and sit quietly on the tailgate of the troop’s old pickup.

RG erupted.

He kicked a water bucket into the fire, creating an enormous smoke plume.  He went to a nearby tent, and grabbed the bottom of the bed rolls of two sleepy eyed scouts.  With a mighty yank, he emptied the screaming kids onto the dirt, and hurled the bags up into a tree, where they hung off a branch like carcasses.  I think he actually roared. Yet while he didn’t hurt anyone, there was not a scout there that wasn’t paying attention.

When he finally spoke, he growled. “These guys,” he pointed at Mike, Richard and me, “have spent 6 months preparing you for this weekend! Is this how you choose to pay them back?!”

Obviously, it was not the collective intent of this group of 10 – 15 year olds to be disrespectful, but RG made it clear that this was the impact of their behavior.

I stood there, stunned. At 16, I expected disrespect from my peers. It’s what boys do.  Yet RG was calling us allforward into the adult world of being accountable for the impact of our actions, regardless our intentions.  This was the first time that I realized that I deserved respect for my leadership. With his anger, RG honored me, and treated me like the adult colleague I had not yet considered myself to be. 

Why was this effective?

As I reflect on RG’s impulsive, yet purposeful action, I’ve tried to understand why his anger was so powerfully constructive.  Further, I’ve had a few experiences with very skilled corporate leaders who have used the same principles.

  • He “meant what he said, but he didn’t say it mean.”  He used “colorful” language, but was not abusive. No individual was singled out or belittled. But no one was left out either.  His message was delivered in such a way that every Scout took it in personally, and confronted themselves with their personal behavior and its impact.
  • His anger was not about him.  This was not an ego-based tantrum because the troop was making him look bad.  If anything, most of us felt guilty because it was clear he held us all in higher esteem than we held ourselves.
  • He used great drama.  RG’s animation got everyone’s undivided attention, and in a single moment, created unity of purpose and a desire to listen.  Perhaps more than anything, RG’s anger was effective because it was so rarely deployed.

RG’s memorial service was last weekend, following a year-long fight with cancer.   Though I could easily recount fifty stories of how my adventures with him molded my own character, none of those memories are as distinct as this one.  RG knew a secret:  anger may not be a skill.  But the use of anger sparingly to transform lives, is.