Leadership : Leaders Need Feelings

Margot’s first degree at the University of Sydney was a Bachelor of Education. She moved to Darwin where she headed up Darwin Family Centers. This organization provided child care and family support for the families across the top end of Australia. It was while studying for her MBA that she started working as a business consultant, at the youthful age of 24.

Margot works with some of the world’s top companies at executive level, helping organizations in times of crisis, such as after mergers and takeovers. She mentors numerous leading international business figures and conducts workshops and conferences.

She is the author of "Approaching the Corporate Heart", ISBN 0-7318-0655-7, Simon & Schuster. 

Margot is Chairman of Zaffyre International, and can be reached at mcairnes@zaffyre.com. See also her websites at http://www.zaffyre.com/  and http://www.margotcairnes.com/index.htm.


It never ceases to amaze me that people fight feelings. I remember running a workshop and on the first day I asked people once how they felt and got them to visualize one outcome. On the second day I asked them again how they felt. "You have already made us feel twice" barked one manager "You're not going to get me to feel again."

Life brings with it feelings. One of the things that we humans pride ourselves on is that we have emotions. We feel at a higher order than other animals or so we like to think. So why are people so keen to hide, ignore, repress or deny how they feel?
There are many reasons. Some arise from our families. When we were growing up we learned sometimes to deny our true emotional response to comply with what we thought was expected of us. Possibly we were living in environments that punished us for being sensitive and aware of our emotions. Environments dominated by an addict for example are characterized by the fact that only one reality is allowable and that is the reality of the addict.

So alcoholic parents beat and emotionally freeze out their children with no remorse because the only thing that really matters to the addict is their next fix. That the children are scared, broken, or in danger is ignored.

In organizations too, where bosses are obsessed with results, certain priorities, or their own importance, the emotional and physical needs and reality of non-power players are ignored. Comply with the dominant culture or get out!

Women have suffered greatly as a result of this thinking. Increasingly research tells us that women and men see the world differently. Organizations can be perceived as addictive environments since they frequently disallow female reality, resulting in the mass refusal by women to pursue corporate careers to positions of senior authority. Sanity dictates that women hang on to their own reality rather than discard this to comply with organization cultures that legitimize only one way of operating.

If people do try to maintain their own reality while operating in environments where individuals and their psychological well-being aren't nurtured they find that the pain of feeling becomes excruciating. It seems sane in these situations to shut down.

However, we do this at our own cost. Our emotions bring with them a huge amount of information about the world in which we live. They tell us when we are safe, and when we are in danger. If we unconsciously shut down our emotions we may be placing ourselves at risk.

It has been a practice in organizations over the last few decades to discard anyone over 50 years of age. There is good reason for this. By 50 most people are so emotionally shut down they are almost emotionally dead. Emotionally dead people don't respond quickly to changes in their environment. They have difficult processing new information, difficulty relating to others and difficulty adapting their behaviour.

Bringing people back to emotional life is difficult, so organizations replace the old lot with young people who are then progressively shut down.

 Of course some individuals chose not to play this game - at a cost. They then feel what it's like to spend 8 - 12 hours a day in an environment where only one reality is acceptable. Here denial of the personal and commitment to often unrealistic and inhuman objectives is the norm. They feel the human cost of organizational politics or of existing in rigid and stifling systems.

If they have enough external support they do however stay emotionally alive. This allows them to see outside the box (for which they are sometimes rewarded and sometimes punished), it allows them to intuit their way through organizational politics and stay emotionally present in key relationships. If they are tough enough they can stay alive in a world that demands the energy of emotions but is almost crippling for anyone who is sensitized to human feeling.

The great cost of all this is not only to the individual but to society. That most leaders have had to deaden their emotions to get through the battle field of organizational politics is hardly something about which we should all rejoice. That organizations pollute, cheat on their tax and engage in otherwise less than ethical practices is largely due to the fact that many leaders have deadened that part of themselves that links them emotionally to other members of the human family.
Movies like "Wall Street" show us an extreme example, but most corporate leaders are emotionally inhuman to some extent. If they weren't they wouldn't have made it that far.

The solution to all this is far from easy. If real change is to come from within the system it needs to come from the top, from the people who have come through the current system and paid the price that the system extracts as a right of passage. If change comes from outside the system from smaller more human organizations (small business being the fastest growing sector of the world economy) then we can expect corporate leaders to fight to retain their current positions of privilege.

Some leaders, however, are choosing for personal and ethical reasons, to learn new ways of being. This is rarely comfortable and is usually questioned by those around them. Such leaders are choosing to look at the psychological patterns and cultural realities that have led them to be the way they are and to operate the way they do. This process is difficult to do without the support of a skilled guide; and such guides aren't easy to find.

Forget in-house mentors. Supporting someone to be a full, alive human being who has the strength necessary to survive corporate politics and forge a leadership path forward through the malaise of denial and group-think that exist in most organizations is a job for skilled independent experts.

They are however worth finding. Rapid technological change and the information revolution are demanding that we all change at a speed that necessitates emotional presence and consciousness as to our psychological drivers. If large organizations are to survive global pressures for rapid response under conditions of ongoing chaotic change we will have to find new ways forward. This isn't just about learning new skills, it is about letting go of ways of operating that actually undermine our humanity.

So yes we do have to feel again and again. And in that feeling might be pain and discomfort, fear and grief, but there will also be joy and love and connection to the human and physical environment in which live. From such a connection we might just make the kinds of decisions that will enrich our lives and save our planet from grievous harm.


© Margot Cairnes 2000

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