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leadership, which wolf are you feeding


Feeling stuck? It may help to ask: which wolf are you feeding?

Published 9 March 2022 in Leadership • 7 min read

With so many leaders currently operating in the burnout or survival zone, Executive Coach Brenda Steinberg explores how leaders can liberate themselves from negative emotions.

Gérard is a chief operating officer for a mid-sized tech firm. The board considers him a possible successor to the CEO in three to five years. Earlier in his career, Gérard had his sights set on being a wealthy entrepreneur and resigned from a high-profile corporate position to start a company with a friend. While the new company was successful, his friend and partner behaved unethically, and Gérard left the venture. His lingering sense of loss about this makes it hard for him to enjoy his current success. When situations are challenging at home or at work, he is angry that he is in this situation, because if it were not for the unethical partner, he would not be faced with the current challenges. In other words, the raw emotions of anger, resentment, and a sense of injustice, form the lens through which he is perceiving the current context.

Natalie is a recent hire for a consumer goods company. She thought she had been hired to revamp the marketing strategy.  Taken on in the middle of the pandemic, there are many members of the global team that she has not yet met and after a strategy presentation to the board, she feels that she lacks the support of the executive leadership team. She fears that she is going to be fired, which is making her more cautious and distant from her team and her boss. She feels angry, scared, and lonely. Being in the grip of these emotions limits her ability to see future possibilities.

Martin is a country finance director for a global manufacturing company and has been in a year-long battle with the country CEO about reporting issues, workflow, restructuring and accountability. The battle is consuming him, and it is making it hard for him to give direction to his team. He is working long hours and misses being able to play with his five-year-old daughter. He fantasizes about leaving the company with dramatic flair.

All three leaders feel stuck. They are sleeping poorly, and their minds are replaying the events of the day, the week, or the year(s). They are in the grip of negative emotions. These leaders are not alone. Due to the pandemic, the dramatic changes in how we work and the increasing geo-political tensions, leaders are under a great deal of stress.  

It calls to mind the legend of the two wolves that battle within us, a parable that is most frequently attributed to the indigenous populations of North America. In the story, an elder explains to his grandson that one wolf is filled with anger, resentment, jealousy, and arrogance while the other is loving, generous, humble and hopeful. The boy asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The elder replies, “The one you feed.”

According to a recent study by Susan Goldsworthy OLY, Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD, 50% of leaders are currently operating in the burnout zone or survival zone. This means that these leaders are experiencing more intense negative emotions, are more reactive to situations, and are compromising their decision-making abilities. This mental state makes it challenging for these typically competent leaders to lead in the way they want, which in turn causes more emotional distress.

In most business contexts, the distinction between good and bad is not clear cut, however, the parable emphasizes that mindset can impact outcome. If the experiences of Gérard , Natalie and Martin resonates with you, and you fear that you are feeding the evil wolf, here are some strategic questions that can help.

The boy asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The elder replies, “The one you feed.”

Why is the current situation making me so emotional?

When triggered by a situation or conflict, ask yourself, “why is this bothering me so much?”  Generally, the situations that stir these raw emotions challenge how we see ourselves— it threatens our self-image and/or identity. These parts of our identity can include, but are not limited to, being competent, responsible, creative, likeable, rational, generous, considerate of others, a good parent, a provider and/or a strong leader. 

In Natalie’s case, she sees herself as competent and creative, and the poor reception to her presentation challenges this self-image. In the grip of her emotions, she was focused on blame, lack of support, and others’ unwillingness to change. In understanding that it was her own sense of competence that was challenged, she said, “I may have been naïve, I may have been stubborn, but I am not incompetent.” She then was able to focus on constructive ways to build relationships and demonstrate credibility.

How are these emotions serving me now?

These strong emotions have an important message, but it is critical not to take it them at face value. Ask yourself, “How is this serving me?” In the case of Gérard, the anger he felt when finding out his partner was committing fraud was useful. He terminated the relationship and made certain that he would not be held accountable for the illegal actions. These strong emotions are often necessary to terminate unhealthy relationships and/or set better boundaries. However, he continued feeding the angry wolf, which resulted in him suspecting that everyone else, family members included, would take advantage of him if they could. 

Conversely, Martin realized that deep down, he was blaming his boss for not being able to advance in the company. Therefore, he collected each of his boss’s missteps or poor planning that resulted in extra work for him and his team as evidence that he was a better leader. After consideration he said, “I have been thinking of myself as the victim, so I have been fighting, but this is not helping me or my team, it is just zapping everyone of energy.”

What is important now?    

Often the negative emotions or ruminating thoughts are messy. They keep circulating because there is no clarity on next steps. Ask yourself, “What is most important to me now?” This often helps reframe the challenge in terms of what you want, and not in terms of what you are losing, making it easier to feed the good wolf. 

Gérard realized that his current situation gave him an opportunity to develop both game-changing new technology and the next generation of leaders. Martin realized that he needed to move on and engaged his boss in helping him do so. By deciding to stop fighting and to preserve the relationship, he de-escalated the situation, which was also of benefit to his team.

What would I do if I did not feel this way?

If you feel that you are stuck in your negative state – or feeding the angry wolf – ask yourself, “What would you do if you did not feel this way?” Or stated differently, “If I was feeling positive, and at peace with myself and others, what would I do?” This can generate new possibilities. For Natalie, she realized that she needs to engage her stakeholders and her team. By feeding the angry wolf she was creating distance when she needed connections.

What would happen if I told a different story?

It is easy to get stuck in our story. Even if the story is right, or has parts that are right, it may be helpful to turn it upside down. What happens if you challenge every part? Ask yourself, “How else could I see this?” Perhaps Natalie’s critics during her presentation were trying to help her succeed? It could be that Martin’s boss appreciates how hard he works and the processes that he has put in place? What if Gerard’s family respects him for his moral compass? These ways of portraying the scenarios do not need to be true to be helpful. By reframing how you view the situation, even temporarily, it will offer different pathways forward.

How can I use my support network?

Especially during the work at home mandates, many people reported feeling isolated. If you are stuck in a negative pattern, reach out. Ask yourself, “Who can provide me with insight?” It is important to reach out to people who can provide advice or challenge your perspective. If you are angry, and only speak with people who share that viewpoint, you may be feeding the wrong wolf. Even if it is time for you to set different boundaries or end your tenure, you need perspective to maintain what is most important to you.

Keep in mind, even if you are not ready to discuss your situation, keeping connected to your network remains helpful. In Martin’s case, his cousin called him to share his frustration at work. It was through listening to his cousin that Martin realized he was misplacing his own frustration. If you are not using your network, you are limiting your opportunities to learn.

The story of the wolves is useful in reminding us that we always have choices. While our real-life choices are not binary, and anger and fear are important to keep us safe and to bring about change, being consumed by negative emotions limits possibilities. We have the capability to shape our mindset. Sometimes this requires us to be kind to ourselves and to others.  

So, which wolf are you feeding?


Brenda Steinberg

IMD Coach

Brenda Steinberg is an executive coach and leadership consultant with more than 20 years’ experience working with senior leaders. She contributes regularly to executive education programs at IMD and works as a consultant with Genesis Advisers.


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