Why Leaders Must Feel Pain

I was on a plane, flying back to New York from California where I’d spent the week in an intense workshop, The Radically Alive Leader, led by Ann Bradney.

In the aisle across from me, a mother was sitting with her two daughters, one about five years old, the other about seven. I happened to look over as the mom was working with the younger daughter on a math problem. I listened for a moment and soon found it hard to breathe.

She was furious at the girl for not knowing the answers to her math problems: “Why don’t you know that? What are you learning in school? All you do is watch TV!”

The little girl began to cry. When she did, her mom’s fury escalated. She hammered on, through the girl’s tears, with a word problem: “If you buy candy for $1.00 and a drink for $1.25, how much do you have to pay? Well? How much do you have to pay?” Her little girl turned her head away, sobbing.

At that point, I started to tear up too.

Mostly, I cried for the girl, but also for her mother. I don’t know what pain this woman has felt in her life or what drives her anger. But I know it’s not her child’s inability to solve a math problem. And I would not be at all surprised if she’d endured similar treatment when she was her daughter’s age.

I realized that I was also crying for my own mother, for myself, and for my children. When I was a child, I felt what that girl was feeling. And, as an adult, I have grown angry with my children for not knowing things.

Most leadership trainings are about ideas, techniques, theories, and methodologies. But the workshop I took this week was designed for the heart, not the head. It was about feeling deeply the emotions we spend our lives avoiding, like the pain of failure and loss.

This act of diving deeply into the feelings we avoid, the feelings we don’t necessarily even know we have, is, I have come to believe, our only hope of breaking our link in the chain of hurt, suffering, and ineffectiveness.

That’s a leadership issue. Because every leader is a human being. And when we avoid feeling the suffering we naturally experience as human beings, we perpetuate it and act against our best interests in our relationships with our colleagues and the people we manage, as well as with our families.

One CEO in our group talked about how, even though she knows her team is capable, she avoids delegating. And now she is exhausted from carrying the weight of her company, saving everyone from making mistakes, and doing their work for them.

Here’s where it got interesting: she didn’t just talk about her exhaustion; she felt it. She lay on a mattress, was physically held by others in the group, and cried. Soon, she began to speak about her brother who killed himself years earlier. Through tears, she told us of her regret at not being able to save him.

It soon became evident that, unable to save her brother, she is trying to save everyone else, a habit that is draining her and could prevent her company from succeeding.

This is not a leadership skills issue. She already knows everything there is to learn about delegation. But until she faces — not just intellectually, but physically and emotionally — that she couldn’t save her brother, all the delegation skills in the world will not help her.

At this point, you may be rolling your eyes at the California-ness of all of this. A leadership workshop with crying? Touching? Extreme self-disclosure?

Truth is, if I were reading this without having experienced it, I might be rolling my own eyes. But that’s the point, really. Talking about emotions doesn’t get us very far. That’s the shortcoming of teaching emotional intelligence as a skill. It doesn’t go far enough. To really become emotionally intelligent, emotionally mature, we have to experience the emotions.

Over the five days there were countless examples of ways in which each of us are stuck in self-defeating patterns. And each time, the cause of the habit had deep origins, born from suffering that was too heavy for us to carry with the maturity we had at the time we experienced it. These feelings are deeply embedded in our bodies as well as our minds. Years of traditional therapy do not unlock them. But we need to release them.

The solution? Feel our feelings deeply. Especially the painful ones.

We need to surround ourselves by others who are supportive, loving, and courageous, and then dive back into the one pool in which we really don’t want to swim — the painful feelings of both the past and the present — and realize that we won’t drown. Sometimes it feels like drowning. But every one of us emerged Ann’s workshop feeling more alive than when we entered it.

I have spent my life trying to prove that I’m good enough to live it. My mother narrowly escaped the holocaust, and her baby sister Ariel did not survive. I grew up thinking daily of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, thinking that because of them, my life had better amount to something.

And now I watch myself drop names of important people I know and talk too much about things I’ve accomplished. I brag, too often striving more for my own success than the success of others, or of endeavors I believe in.

This is a destructive game. The more I try to impress others, the less I believe in myself. And no amount of communication training will help unless I can feel the pain of never feeling good enough and acknowledge that my life can never make up for any of the six million. The only way we can move forward, live fully, and lead courageously, is by feeling enough to become deeply mature human beings.

The challenge is formidable: are we willing to stop being the people we are expected to be, the people we expect ourselves to be, and simply be who we are? If so, then we will make room not only for ourselves, but for others to be themselves. And that is powerful leadership.

We cannot lead without feeling the pain of living because the things we do to avoid feeling pain result in poor leadership. We don’t acknowledge others. We try to control everything. We lose our temper and criticize others disproportionately. If we don’t feel our emotions, we are controlled by them.

Towards the end of the flight, the mother had fallen asleep, and the girl was snuggled against her peacefully. How much better would it be if her mother could offer that comfort awake?

How much more powerful would the CEO be if she could convey her trust for her very capable people, delegating with the confidence that they will accomplish their tasks?

And how much better of a father, husband, writer, and leader would I be if I could speak and write the truth as I see it without worrying about how it would make me look?

My heart is beating hard as I think about posting this and exposing the sides of me that brag and cry. It feels scary and also great. It feels radically alive.