In the twenty-first century emotions have been relegated to the domain of penniless poets or artists, losers and weaklings. Business discussions are about objectivity, facts, numbers. Strategy is about “maximizing shareholder value” –whatever that means—and well, lab-cold science seems to be the new religion. Deep down inside every one of us, however, emotion pulsates dramatically, silently, irresistibly… driving our lives despite our most rigorous denial. Connecting back into our passionate hearts may just be the secret to youthful, exciting leadership every day of our lives.
We forget that once upon a time leadership was a matter of the heart. When we loved our people so much that we were willing to sacrifice everything in order to feed them and protect them against all odds. Leadership was about heroism, bravery, true hearts and pure intentions. It was never about money, powerful connections or manipulated appearances. And it certainly had nothing to do with the scandals and corruption we wake up to read about every morning.
Before we became citizens roaming cement jungles in search of WIFI coverage, we used to be small groups of humans walking the Earth in search of food, water and safety. We couldn’t afford to choose a ruler who didn’t care about the entire tribe at least as much as he (or she) cared about himself. Leaders were called to make life or death decisions concerning the entire tribe’s future every minute of every day. And all they could rely on were sensations in their bodies. There were no maps. No radars. No GPS location devices and no google searches “near here”.
Survival was a game with zero information where heart and guts were more relevant, and hugely more useful, than brains. A tight gut indicated a possible enemy. A warm heart brought closeness and affection. Sudden chills or skin curling startled us into immediate defense against a nearby predator. No matter what our minds were trying to figure out at the time, our bodies were fully connected to every sensation, odor and noise in our environment in order to keep us safe another day.
A leader who didn’t know what he felt or how he felt about this cave, that lake or the nearby pack of wolves, would lead his followers right into the jaws of extinction. Well, actually, he probably wouldn’t be followed at all. The group would immediately sense that something was deeply wrong and somebody else would step up in the name of everybody’s survival. Today, however, something is deeply wrong with so many of us, that everybody’s survival may be at serious risk. When I ask CEOs and board members from any one of the five continents how they feel, I typically get “fine. Thanks!” or “huh?” Or an urgent incoming call to save them from a rather annoying question. Questions about body sensations, feelings and emotions are closed as quickly as possible, before anything can actually be felt. Labels like fine, ok, or happy are most effective remedies.
Rapid shifts to new conversational topics and innumerable iphone enabled interruptions also work. And if all else fails, well, the pharma industry gladly comes to our rescue. Unless an ulcer is torturing our stomach or lumbar pain is bending us over our chairs, we seem to be pretty bad at diagnosing body-felt sensations. We are saturated with information, flooded by communication and paralyzed by analysis on a regular basis. And while our brains run around in circles trying to decide which path to follow, our hearts are pitifully trapped inside unreachable cages of judgment, discipline, will-power and denial.
We actually prefer to exhaust ourselves with effortful research, sleepless number-crunching and circular scenario-planning, than allow ourselves to feel what our bodies have to say about the decisions we face. Decisions that will shape the future of our organizations, our societies and our entire planet. How to invert this dangerous global trend? By attacking the root of the problem: judgment, discipline, will-power and denial. Our shared effort to constantly keep emotions in check is making our economies run faster and faster, like hysterical chickens racing up and down in blind motion.
Our biggest, globally present enemy is our collective judgment of emotions as weaknesses. The minute we begin to feel the smallest inkling of grief we start thinking of ourselves as inferior. Our restless minds plan scenarios in which we are expelled from society, treated as losers and gossiped about behind our backs. We wonder if we should take medication, or we desperately try to get busy with anything to distract us from unpleasant sensations. We judge ourselves as losers before anybody else has the chance to, thereby making our hearts hurt even more. We become hard, cruel dictators to our softly weeping, unfairly jailed bodies.
It always amazes me how easily and quickly executives relax when they experience a total lack of judgment on my part. Their shoulders drop slightly and they suddenly breathe a big, sad sigh. Once we receive assurance that feeling sad, or angry or scared is exactly what we are supposed to do, we stop fighting it, judging it, and generally trying to kill it, whatever it is. The battle between our minds and our hearts finally ceases.
Working, running, hurrying, worrying… they all fall away like old, dead skin. We stop wasting energy on a fight we can’t win, and we finally give in to what our body sorely needs from us: attention. And then, surprise, surprise, the ugly emotion consumes itself. Maybe a few hours, maybe a couple days. It’s gone. Often leaving a new association of thoughts in our minds as a thank you gift: new comprehensions about who we are and what we stand for.
Serenity, clarity, and bravery surface to structure our ideas and offer new avenues of purpose. Youthful passion for life flows and replenishes our bodies just as it used to do, before we learned to build intellectual dams of discipline against unruly, liquid emotion. Imagine the global wave of sudden relaxation we could create if every CEO on the planet stopped trying to avoid his or her own emotions for a day. Or for one hour.
If we all stopped willing ourselves to write another email, make another call, tweet another smart thought. If the Internet went silent and phones stopped ringing. And all we could hear was the slow, powerful beat of our own hearts. Would we all sigh in relief and feel human again?