The Secret Great Leaders Know About Emotion

I used to believe my emotions were a weakness, and I’m sharing this information with the hope you can avoid the painful lesson I had to learn.

Do you believe your emotions are weaknesses you must suppress to succeed? What if I told you that your emotions were not an obstacle to success but a critical ingredient in your success?

I believed my emotions were a weakness, and the results were ugly.

About two years ago, I read a couple of books that explained my problem and what to do about it. The first was Executive EQ and the second was Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness.

Here are some of the secrets in these books:

Great leaders accept their feelings and allow themselves to feel their feelings fully. That’s right! They allow themselves to feel their fear in all its intensity. They don’t try to suppress it or step around it or deny it. They don’t fight it. They accept it and feel it. A great leader doesn’t believe something is wrong with him when he feels a particular feeling. Wow! What an eye opener! Tiger Woods feels fear too! He knows that denying his feelings leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. I never knew that. I thought I was a freak for feeling the things I felt.

Great leaders know the difference between conscious emotional action and impulsive emotional re-action. Some might call this emotional maturity. When children feel angry they may hit people or break things. This is an emotional re-action. Some of us don’t know how to stop re-acting impulsively to our emotions and it carries into adulthood. When we feel a particular way, we re-act negatively or we channel one emotion to a different emotion and re-act incongruently. For example – a man may feel that he cannot re-act to his sorrow, so he channels his sorrow into anger and re-acts violently instead. It is impulsive re-action most people think of when they imagine an emotional person.

Great leaders feel their emotion, name their emotions, and act on them. For example: A great warrior will feel her fear in battle, understand that she is afraid, and interpret it as a message to act with courage. A Native American friend once told me, “In my culture, we are taught to trust our feelings. We do not shun feelings. We understand they are messages from nature that we need to take action. Feelings are messages from the spirit world.”

Great leaders trust their intuition. Intuition is the art of knowing without reasoning. Great leaders know that intuition is the shortcut to making great decisions quickly. We can all access our intuition if we learn to listen to our hunches. As a child, I solved complex math problems correctly using only intuition, and the teacher punished me for cheating and told me what I was doing was impossible. I had no desire to write out pages of work to solve a problem that I already knew the answer to. After that, I gave up on math and my intuition. I learned the lesson my teacher was teaching. It took me almost thirty years to unlearn that lesson.

Great leaders broadcast positive emotions. Great leaders have learned to use their minds to feel and broadcast Love, Hope, Desire, Sex Appeal, Confidence, Joy, Trust, and Faith to other people. Watch the great speeches from MLK to Steve Jobs. How do they make you feel? Where do you think that comes from?

Great leaders do the seemingly impossible using imagination combined with positive emotion. They create a novel, a piece of artwork, a political movement, a military victory, an invention, or a great theory, by first imagining it in detail while feeling positive emotions like passion, love, and faith. Without intense focused emotions, there would be no world changing creations.

My Story

When I was child, people told me I was overly sensitive. Since the second grade, I believed I had an emotional birth defect that I had to overcome.

I’ve always felt that I was able to walk into a room and sense other people’s feelings. If someone was secretly angry, I could feel it. If someone was genuine, I could feel it. If someone held resentment or hate, I could feel it. If someone was full of love, I could feel that too. This whole situation seemed insane and voyeuristic. I don’t mean that I knew how other people felt; I mean that I actually felt their feelings. So if someone was talking to me while feeling afraid, I felt afraid too.

At some point I realized, that boys aren’t supposed to feel that way. I began to suppress and deny my emotions because I believed they were a weakness. So in order to control the re-actions which revealed my emotions, I suppressed and denied my sadness, fear, or any other emotion that could lead to a socially damaging re-action.

The results of this method of self-denial were devastating. I turned into an emotional black-hole, devoid of empathy, with all my denied emotions manifesting in destructive actions (substance abuse, criminal activity, violence) and psychiatric issues (depression and panic attacks). My wife once described me as “completely black and empty on the inside.”

My experience is an extreme example. But I believe most people suppress their emotions to some degree. Suppressing your emotions won’t solve your problems because emotions will always find a way to manifest. But there is a solution.

Your emotions are your strength, not your weakness. It just depends upon how you think about them.

To be great, learn to feel great.

This post has been listed on the Cultivate Growth and Blog Success Carnival at Cultivate Success. – Thanks Travis

Read the 10 part series on the 10 things I wish I had never believed:

#1 Why People Believe Money is the Root of All Evil
#2 Why Getting a Good Job isn’t the Best Way to Earn Money
#3 The Secret Great Leaders Know About Emotions
#4 Success is 99% Failure
#5 10 Tips to Secure a Management Position without a College Degree
#6 Always Question Your Doctor – Three Stories Why
#7 How the Public School System Crushes Souls
#9 Give Me 3 Minutes and I’ll Make you a Better Decision Maker

17 thoughts on “The Secret Great Leaders Know About Emotion”

  1. It’s hard to admit how you really feel, even though there’s a lot going on internally. I’m pretty okay with how I feel about things though, but maybe that’s because I’m female. It always seems easier for women when it comes to being “soft”. Interestingly, I have a harder edge than many women, but still am a big empathizer and sympathizer. It’s so great to hear you are able to let your feelings out now!

  2. There’s a simple way to feel what other people are feeling through matching and mirroring. Sounds like you are extremely good at building rapport with people and are naturally open to those around you.

    I struggled with the same things you did as a kid – and now it makes me a phenomenal coach, because I’m so intuitive with my clients.

    It would make YOU a great coach too…

    hint. hint. 🙂

  3. I grew up for most of my childhood in a single-parent home. My mom worked HARD to provide for us and she was the strongest woman I’ve ever known. She instilled in me everything positive that’s part of me now. Work ethic, character, drive, and confidence. She also instilled in me a lot of other things that I’ve spent several years “uninstilling”. Bless her, she did the very best she could and I will never fault her for that. But sometimes parents unknowingly create blocks and negative paradigms out of an undying love or just plain not knowing. Anyway, one of the things I learned from her is that we must be women of steel, so nothing can hurt us. We must never let our emotions rule us, and we must not be vulnerable. I was indeed the woman of steel and could not be hurt. I could also not feel real true joy, because as my therapist so wisely said, when you shut off emotions so you can’t feel any pain, you also shut off the joy. You can’t have it both ways.

    My steely ways also helped me destroy my first marriage and was on my way to destroying my second one before I wised up. I also found it hard to ask for help, as I perceived that as a weakness too. All these things I’ve had to unlearn, and it’s been great!

  4. Everyone has had good imput and something to be learned from them here. I think that there is nothing to be learned or gained from straight, strict negativity. except more of the same…like attracts like..

    This is not to say something that is a recognized error or a negativity should not be, in the correct perception, changed…when stressed it does one not good to continue to stress..instead, finding the solution in the best possible environment, which is ,and on a celluar level is much more optimal ie healathier, a reasonable problem solving and life changing event..How can one then see a thing and addresss for betterment when one is depressed and beating oneself up…No take a higher road that is worthy of action.

    It is not out there it is in here and to do something to rectify the situaltion we need not deny it exists, yet we do not wallow in it either. When something is/goes awry, find the sollution not the bellyaching, No pun intended…

    Being ill making oneself depressed and physically ill changes nothing..But realizing thaat all paroblems begin and end with how it is viewed and resolved then this is in the right direction..of making changes….

    This is not a looking through rose colored glasses indeed it is being realistic and kind to oneself and doing what needs to be done in a mind and emotion of I am capable and can do attitude…it is not necessary to be the black cloud that you are wanting to fix..

  5. “Great leaders accept their feelings and allow themselves to feel their feelings fully.” This is sooo true and yet so hard to do. I have to remind myself all the time.

  6. I have to agree with Elaine; recognizing your feelings and making rational, realistic decisions are two different things. They do go hand in hand, but one shouldn’t overrule the other.

    My second husband intends to divorce me. At first I was devastated and thought about strategies that would enable me to keep him. Nothing worked and I was drowning in misery and alcohol (feelings, feelings, feelings). At some point, with the help of my support group (friends), I realized that I should close that chapter and move on to someone who will appreciate me. I made twp rational decisions: to stop drinking and to go to graduate school. I am moving in few months and FEELING great. I got myself out of the emotional mud by making rational decisions. Make wise decisions to cure/remove your negative feelings – is my advice.

    My husband will have three short, failed marriages behind him, precisely because he can’t connect and open up emotionally. His problem! He would rather suffer alone than admit a mistake and compromise. It’s a decision he let his fragile ego make for him. “It’s my way or the highway” sent three of his wives on the highway. Ultimately, things will never be his way!

    Follow your emotions and dreams, your intuition and faith; make decisions that will build your life, not destroy it. Set goals and plans and follow through them. How to measure your success: if you enjoyed an hour of your life, it was a successful hour. If you spent one hour helping someone or doing something useful for yourself, it was a successful hour. Don’t forget happiness is measured in moments, not in years. Forget the laundry and cuddle with your kids. Forget about buying a new fancy car; take your family on a nice vacation. Things perish, good memories don’t. If someone gives you heartache, either communicate your feelings to them or remove the entire person from your heart. Unless you care about something, it can’t hurt you. Some people are simply mean and negative. You can’t change them or understand them. Stay away from them.

    If you’re unhappy with your career, it probably means you deserve better. But nothing better will knock on your door if you don’t do anything. First make a good product out of yourself (skilled and productive), then try to sell yourself. Unless you’re an artist or new in your professional field, chances are, you’re having the kind of career that you’ve fought for. The more passion (again, feelings) you invest in your professional development the more creative you will be about finding ways to succeed. Real successful people didn’t read a book “How to be Successful” that enlightened them. They had inner strength that led them through their struggles; they had goals that lit their paths; they had the curiosity to learn about their passions; they had the humility to learn from those who knew more; they had the endurance and patience to build their success piece by piece (and often watch it fall apart and re-build it from scratch).

    The brain and the heart often DO work together as a team, but in a destructive way: the brain convinces the heart that it wants something that the brain imposes as wise. And the heart doesn’t want it. This case was elaborated by the original poster. But often, the heart imposes its feelings on the reason; it looks for excuses to do something that’s irrational and detrimental to our quality of life. Try to use your brain to contrive solutions that will please your heart.

    If you’re a parent… one day, when you’re very old and you look back, all you will care about is that your children are happy and fulfilled. You won’t care about how many lovers you had, how many people insulted you, how many times you cried, how much money you made, whether you liked your profession or not… So try to give as much love and affection to your children as you can. Discipline is good, but strictness is crippling. Being serious about the rules is good, but being stiff about them teaches them to suppress their feelings – their greatest treasure. I’ve seen so many people suffering because they didn’t get enough attention and affection from their parents. I’ve never seen anyone suffering because their parents let them stay up for 30 more minutes when it was bedtime. My husband is passive-aggressive and unable to sustain a relationship because he was raised by strict, cold parents, deprived from passionate love. Love your kids passionately and teach them to love passionately. You can’t fix your psyches much by going to therapists, but you can prevent your children from needing therapists some day!

  7. Irene has some very powerful things to say that entails action…there are times that we forget that we must act and not just think about it, do something, make a plan and work the plan…thanks Irene for your clarity and congratulations on overcoming and knowing that you are important and your esteem is of great value.. I’ve read this and re read it…over a period of time..Thanks

  8. wow im struggleling with that right now , i have messed up so much things in my life because if my reaction of supressing my feelings i have even lost my self now i am dealing with the consequences and realizing why i acted the way i did and made all the mistakes ive made now all my emotions are hitting me and its driving me crazy

  9. “Great leaders” – you also mentioned military leaders? So Hitler was also a great leader because of how he also dealed with his emotions, he let the hate for Jews run through his people, they accepted it, and they slaughtered millions of people. Why do people care so much about being “a leader” or “being somebody” – I don’t get it. The world would be a better place without “leaders”…

  10. One has to differentiate. All emotions can be either rational or irrational, depending on the truth or falsity of their underlying thought processes.

  11. emotions are a sign of weakness. if you don’t want to believe that, fine: let’s say emotions are not a sign of weakness, and it’s ok for you to get emotional.

    in your corner, the reason you’ll soon find you are weak is because your emotions get in the way of effective decision making. there you are, perhaps you’re are an idiot but don’t realize, and you cannot rely on yourself to come up with the best solution to a given situation. now, then, it is ok for you to be emotional because you were a lost cause to begin with. it’s ok for your decision making processes to get tossed by the wayside because the solutions would be weak and diluted and ultimately unsuccessful.

    in the other corner, is me, and i’m fully cognizant that emotions are a sign of weakness. here i stand fully aware of my actions, my environment, and our situation. as the clock ticks and you weigh your emotions, i can plot out and consider the best possible solution, remote from emotions, and give myself the best chance at success.

    so in the end, you are obscuring your mind and precluding yourself from the calculated best course of action, making you, on average, more likely to fail. wouldn’t you want to give yourself the best chance to succeed? a little assignment: look around you, even in nature, and compare how things play out in every situation, and how closely the results relate to laws of physics, and consider the outcome had the victor weighed his emotions and what benefit is derived from emotions and you will soon see there is none.

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