Real Leaders

Leading Through Emotion: Riding Your Personal Tsunami

Emotions are still misunderstood among business leaders. They are mostly unknown to almost everyone else in society too. Ironically, emotions seem to be most confusing to emotional experts themselves, if only because many of us tend to remain closed off behind our theories around emotion most of the time.

So here are four crucial things I have learned about emotion in my 20 years of examining this phenomenon. Anyone trying to lead should keep these points in mind:

  1. Emotion is wild in nature
  2. Emotion is like a wave that we need to surf, rather than suppress or block
  3. It’s more important to know how to come out of an emotion, than how to go into it
  4. All you need are three tools: attention focus, breath and (involuntary) movement

Firstly, emotion is wild in nature. It’s like a lion. Unpredictable, magnificent and invigorating, it can chew your head off in a split second. Daniel Goleman coined the expression “emotional intelligence” in the nineties, which was surely better than previous emotional stupidity or ignorance. Still, being intelligent about our feelings would make it sound like we can put them into boxes, label them, add them up or subtract them, plan them and control them.

But emotions, sensations and feelings are like a wild lion. If you put it in a cage, it’s no longer inspiring or thrilling, and it often ends up just sleeping around all day. Today, too much psycho mumbo-jumbo about caging and controlling emotions at will is written about and TED-talked on stage. Nice theory though.

If you’re serious about learning to handle emotion – both yours and your followers – you’re going to have to see them as the wild, unpredictable animals they are. You can befriend them, you can learn to trust them, and you can do marvelous, incredible things with them. But they may betray you in a split second at any moment for reasons you could never have anticipated. And when they do bite your head off and kill you, well, you’ll be born again to a bigger, better you.

Secondly, we need to surf the wave of emotion rather than block it. Every sensation in the body behaves like a wave of energy. It comes in, builds to a climax, and then pulls out. This may happen very slowly, over hours, days or even weeks – like all those complicated family conflicts we’re emerging from over the festive season! Or it may happen within a couple of seconds.

Like real waves in the ocean, you can surf a two-meter wave or find yourself riding a tsunami. Your ability to face the latter obviously stems from many hours spent on the board, mastering the slow, tiny waves first. The wild nature of these waves is from the complete randomness of how they arrive, where they arrive from, how fast they reach you, and how easily they can topple you over when least expected.

In our society, however, spurred on by ignorant psycho-babble about controlling or changing what we don’t like about ourselves, we try to stop the wave instead of surfing it. We get stuck, blocked, or disconnected. Our minds start turning round too quickly in never-ending circles and we behave compulsively, sabotaging our own goals and repeating old, well-known and severely self-reprimanded mistakes.

If you want to surf these waves of energy, you need to go soft instead of hard. As muscles and joints tense up with the increase of emotional energy, you need to soften them again. And yes, a mind that won’t shut up is behaving exactly like an emotionally charged muscle. Try to soften up and surf your way through the current of energy.

Which leads me to my third point: It’s more important to find your way out of an emotion than to get into it. It takes emotional experts a long, long time to learn this one!

It’s called “grounding,” and it means that once a sensation takes over your body, you have resources, techniques and (if needed) lifesavers, to help you come back down to the ground where you feel safe and sound. When other drivers anger you, breathe yourself back to calm. If shareholders and investors, through their own fears, pull out capital investments, breathe yourself back to calm optimism and positive thoughts.

A few well-known emotional experts think its super productive to take a client to their worst place of fear or pain during a seminar. It’s what we see in typical hotel facilities full of desperate souls manipulated into letting it all out. When all the crying, screaming and pouting is done, most of them can’t explain what they’ve learned, and some of can’t find their grounding for days or weeks afterwards.

More importantly, if you do touch on a sensitive wound from the past, with overflowing emotion you don’t know how to contain, it can scare you so much that you won’t want to go back there ever again. There is nothing scarier than getting stuck in a horrible emotion you can’t come out of. It makes you dependent on magical big-mouths who promise they can fix your problems, and can  end up costing a lot of money.

Practice with smaller emotions and sensations first. Build a tool box of resources that work for you and as you get good at coming back to the ground, try more intensive adventures. Never do anything that feels fundamentally wrong or unsafe, no matter how many people in the room are cheering you on.

And how do we surf our waves of wild, unpredictable emotion in such a way we can ground ourselves as often as needed? By learning to use our attention focus, breath and (involuntary) movement. Every meditation and mindfulness technique in the world is based on the use of these three tools.

Your attention must focus on the problem, the pain or the tension if you’re going to resolve it. Thinking of other things doesn’t help, and escaping only makes it bigger. Once you are looking at it, breathing can help you connect to the sensations it contains: size, texture, location, frequency, images and memories it brings back, etc. Finally, movement, especially the kind that is not ordered by our brain, but initiated by the body itself, will bring fluidity to unblock and surface emotions withheld there.

Leading through emotion is the only real way of leading people. We can only harness the best version of themselves when we give them the space and the opportunity to express their talent freely, which means emotions flow all over the place. So start by learning to manage your own emotions and surf your own waves… in time you will see others learn by following your example. And the better you get at managing tsunamis, the more people will follow you trustingly wherever you dare to go!


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