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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Leader as healer

Senior business leaders are struggling more than ever to manage the unprecedented technological, social and environmental forces transforming our world. It’s time to embrace and harness the power of emotion writes Nicholas Janni

Given the current crises and ever-growing instability of our times, there has never been a more important time to recognise what an essential role Emotional Intelligence (EQ) plays in good leadership. There has even been a royal call by the Prince and Princess of Wales who recently posted an advert for an ‘emotionally intelligent’ CEO. But what is emotional intelligence, how can you develop yours, and what benefits does it have for business?

Emotions are the gateway to our deeper humanity. Connecting more consciously with our feeling states allows us a richer, more heartfelt and empathic relationship to life and to leadership. This in turn heightens energy and connectedness, which provide the foundation for higher levels of perception, vision, insight and innovation.

However, the reality we have normalised is chronically imbalanced ways of thinking and functioning that have become the norm in so many corporate cultures, where doing eclipses being, and hyper-rational, analytical thinking relegates feeling, sensing, intuiting and the transpersonal to the outer fringes of life.

I believe the failure to correct this imbalance is severely detrimental not only to individual and organizational performance, but to our capacity for creating healthy, thriving futures.

The way we relate to — or, more often, do not relate to — our emotions is one of the biggest sources of fragmentation and disconnectedness in our culture. Yet, this challenge presents a ripe opportunity for change. By facing it, leaders can cross a prime transformational gateway towards bringing deeper presence and coherence to themselves and their organizations, building cultures where connectedness, high performance, and satisfaction and meaning are naturally interconnected.

Many cultures and the organizations within them have developed two false beliefs about human emotions. The first is that there is such a thing as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotion. The second is that emotions make us weak, unpredictable and ultimately unproductive.

Ask yourself: Do you believe fear blocks you? If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. Whenever I put this question to a room full of executives, virtually all agree that fear is an obstacle. The prevailing belief is that we should block out or otherwise rid ourselves of fear, since sitting in this ‘negative’ emotion prevents us from taking the bold steps required to solve problems. But nothing could be further from the truth.

What blocks our ability to solve problems is the act of blocking the feeling of fear itself. Once someone feels safe enough to allow the feeling of fear — to relax and pay attention first to the physical sensations of fear, and only secondarily to the thought patterns and narratives it creates — there is almost always a moment of shift or opening. This usually leads to an energizing or settling sensation, felt throughout the body, which is the exact opposite of being stuck or blocked.

As the psychotherapist and poet Miriam Greenspan states in Healing Through the Dark Emotions: “Vulnerability is at the heart of our human capacity for empathy; for suffering, but also for joy; for hurt, but also for compassion; for loneliness, but also for connection. When we are most vulnerable, we are most alive, most open to all the dimensions of existence. In our vulnerability is our power.”

Emotional Intelligence at its core simply means making appropriate space for the natural range of human emotions.

If in a meeting a majority of people present are feeling some degree of anxiety – and who nowadays does not feel some underlying anxiety, be that about personal circumstances of the state of the world – there is absolutely nothing to be gained by a culture in which one is not supposed to feel fear, because that somehow means we are ‘weak’, a truly idiotic mindset. In such a meeting, people will be sitting in such a state of extreme physical tension in order to suppress their fear, that their critical thinking faculties will be severely compromised.

Here are two real-world examples of Emotional Intelligence at work:

During a recent retreat I held for CEOs in the US, one participant had a ‘light bulb moment.’ He recalled an incident in which he had discovered an employee engaging in illegal activity and called the police.

“They came first thing on Monday morning,” said the executive, “and, in front of everyone in our open plan office, handcuffed the man and marched him out. Staff were understandably shocked. Later in the morning, I called everyone together, explained why I’d involved the police, and encouraged everyone to get on with their work.”

But, for the rest of that week, he explained, people were in “a kind of daze.”

In his ‘lightbulb’ moment during our retreat, he realized an alternative approach would have been far better. He could have instead called everyone together and said something like: “I’m angry at our long-term colleague for committing this crime, but I’m also shocked and upset to have seen him arrested in front of us, he is an old friend of mine.  And I imagine many of you may be feeling similarly, so let’s take a moment just to acknowledge the mix of emotions we’re all feeling. Turn to the person next to you, and share how you’re doing. Share exactly how you are feeling – angry, upset, frightened, numb.”

“Had I done that,” he said, “had I simply acknowledged and made space for how everyone was feeling, we would have saved three days and hundreds of hours of below-par performance.”


One of my chief executive clients leads a large organization, with over 100,000 employees. He recently reflected on his experience being in a board meeting of a major US company in which a deeply heartfelt conversation occurred. Members spent the meeting discussing the idea that everyone’s humanity ‘needed to shine.’ At some point in the course of that meeting, he said, everyone had shed a tear.

“I’d never been in a board meeting where anything like that had happened,” he said. “Not ever. And I bet it has never happened in any Fortune 50 company before!”

A little while later he wrote to me: “Just had our company board meeting. Everybody was in the usual strategic planning mode. Then, I asked the question, ‘How is the leadership team feeling?’ It was a cathartic conversation, and something completely different opened up.”

I often invite clients to ask themselves at the end of each day: “How many times today did I open my heart?”

The times call us urgently to break the deep disconnection from ourselves and each other that we have come to accept as normal. The over-dominance of left-brain rational thinking must be stopped. Einstein asked us to consider ‘is your mind your master or your servant’? We are in big trouble when, as in most cases, it has become our master, because it means we live in a narrow, small version of reality, delusionally believing it to be far more that it actually is, and using tools that are clearly not fit for purpose in the face of more and more unprecedented complexity and instability.

We urgently need what I call “whole-self intelligence”, bringing all of our faculties to the table – mind, body, heart, intuition and soul, and the capacity to rest in a deep space of Being within our frenetic Doing, in order to listen to a much higher order of intelligence.

Making heartfelt space for all of our natural emotions is at the very core of my latest book.

I believe that our future depends on it.

Nicholas Janni’s Leader as Healera new paradigm for 21st century leadership (Business Book of the Year 2023) is out now.

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