Who Said Feelings Are Soft?

I was stationed in Amsterdam and leading/building a successful practice for one of the globe’s largest management consulting organizations. Outside observers would have said I was the rising star. As an expatriated employee and a practice lead, I had checked the success boxes. I had a comfortable townhouse in the outskirts of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I traveled the world extensively and could match interesting and adventurous stories with anyone. I was surrounded by people who, due to my reputation and brand in the organization, wanted to be with me and be part of the energy that was propelling my success. Like so many of us, I was on a treadmill to the top.  My organization developed internal broadcasts of me and a team member and shared them with every office around the world. Visitors from other offices would routinely stop in to meet me and benchmark their offerings and practices to ours. Etc, etc, etc.

An early spoiler alert, the high was followed by a loud crash.

There is a metaphor that I so love which asks “Is your doorknob from the inside or the outside?”  This means, have you cultivated a sense of purpose and belonging through which you filter information, people, feelings and behaviors and let pass through only those that are aligned? Or, do they come and go like party crashers at their whim and you are more akin to a weather vane spinning with the direction of the changing wind.

I was clearly in the second category. My sense of success in personal and professional life was defined from the outside. When I would get attention and praise, I would take flight and experience a delicious high much like the effects of a powerful drug. Equally, I had a great deal of difficulty processing feedback and criticism. It was as if someone had a knife in their hand and had planned to take my life and all that was important to me.  Needless to say, this resulted in disappointing professional, and most importantly personal, consequences.

When I invited my family to join me in Amsterdam, my ex-wife looked inside herself, and to her credit, decided that there just was not enough in the marriage for her to move the family. And ultimately, that horrific day arrived when we told our 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter of our pending divorce. I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a nice day on a bench in Amsterdamse Bos, a beautiful park in Amstelveen, a suburb of Amsterdam where I lived. My son, in the pure and angelic voice that 8-year-olds have, and with tears in his eyes, looked at us and asked: “Why don’t you just tell each other you are sorry”? Looking back, I am now convinced that it was that seminal moment that started my journey towards becoming wholehearted and my passion for whole brain leadership. Something profound shook my inside when I looked into his eyes as the window to the wisdom that we are born with. It made me feel the depth of his question. What was running my life? Whose life was I living? What was I running away from? What was it that I had to hold onto? How did I make my decisions? How did I want to be remembered? Who and what was important in my life? What were my values and how was I living them? How connected was I with the people around me? Needless to say, the answers that came to me were profoundly disturbing.

Often it starts with a crack in the dam and it takes passion and dedicated work to rewire the brain. As you are reading these paragraphs, there are millions of souls around the world (and yes, many business executives) who have embarked on this journey. They have realized that it is impossible to achieve happiness, connect with and/or lead others unless and until they come whole with themselves and do the work necessary to fill in the holes and the insecurities. (Yes, insecurities, especially those of you who think you don’t have them…)

For me, it has taken years of reflection, therapy, coaching, missteps, and corrections along the way to finally come at life with my whole brain. My goal has been to elevate above my thoughts and emotions so that at the most critical times in my life when I make an important choice and take actions, I am serving my purpose and higher goals. So that I am not unduly influenced by my auto response, thoughts, or feelings. And, as Victor Frankl so profoundly expressed it, I am building a “space between the stimuli and response”.

A technique that I have used for myself and my clients is to see these thoughts and feelings as guests around my dinner table. Each has their own name tag—the voice of ego (yes, we all have it and at times helpful), the voice of cynicism, the voice of anger, the voice of hurt, the voice of insecurity, the voice of love, the voice of hope, etc. Like an accomplished host, I like to become as familiar with each voice as possible. So that I know the meaning, the tone, the texture, its effect on my body. In this way, I am never surprised by what they may say and can respond to it effectively. I like to pay attention to which voices are the loudest and demanding the most attention and why. Which voices are less heard and where are they sitting around the table.  Like a good host, I ask myself am paying equal attention to all of my guests or only the ones that I am most familiar with? How am I introducing my guests to one another and how are those conversations going? For example, when the voice of despair speaks to me am I introducing him to the voice of hope and what are they saying? In this way, rather than running away from my thoughts and emotions, I am inviting them in but from an elevated and unattached stance. Knowing that I am so much more than my thoughts. Knowing that in my lifetime I have the proof that it is possible to fundamentally change oneself. And, most importantly, knowing that leadership at work and home requires that, at the most critical times when decisions are made and actions are taken, I use all of the information available, including my own understanding of my biases and habits. It is a fallacy to think that Nelson Mandela was not resentful of the treatment the Afrikaans had afforded him through 27 years of hard labor and prison. The reason he chose to invite the Afrikaans into his rainbow coalition is that he was able to elevate above his dinner table, name the voices that were speaking into his ears, compare and contract their advice to his purpose (serving and building the new South Africa), and make the right choices.

The U.S. culture is routinely assessed by intercultural experts such as Geert Hofstede1 as one of the most masculine and individualistic cultures in the world. Masculine cultures are characterized by a belief system that values competition and hard work over relationship building and collaboration. These cultures are founded on the belief system that the aggressive and dominant species will outmuscle and outrun the weaker and more collaborative ones. They rely on the leader of the tribe being the smartest, fastest, strongest, and most agile and the victor of the winner take all/zero-sum contest. Conversely, these cultures see feelings, tears, joy, uncertainty, anxiety and other natural human emotions as not belonging in the competitive arena of business and certainly not the type of behavior that a strong leader would engage in.

This repressed and outdated view of global business and leadership is the reason why, once I complete with my obligatory business and credibility dance with many of my clients and they finally let me in and start to talk about the real issues that are facing them, the emotional dam breaks.  When it breaks I find myself on the receiving end of years of repressed and unattended emotions that have been forced into an artificial construct called business behavior. They share their lack of trust of others.  Talk about their loneliness and disconnectedness from their friends and family.  Acknowledge the relentless pace they are pursuing and the wear and tear on their bodies and relationships. They share their insecurities regarding a myriad of topics such as not keeping up with technology, being threatened by younger up and comers, what they will do with themselves and how they would fit in postretirement, etc.

When leaders repress their own emotions they lose their connections to their soul.  And when they cannot connect with their authentic selves they lose the ability to connect at deeper levels with their followers. Connecting with others and to belong are basic human needs and the only sustainable way to influence and motivate others. In so doing, we are soft-wired through our mirror neurons to feel other people’s emotions and to not use them is to atrophy the muscles that million years of evolution have bestowed to our species.

Please see the short clip below regarding mirror neurons:



1. Hofstede G, Hofstede GJ, Minkov M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. McGraw-Hill.


Questions for Online Conversations

  1. When did you last take time to slow down and think about the above topics?
  2. Can you in any way relate to it? If not why not?
  3. If it speaks to you, what are you prepared to do to address it?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

2 Responses to Who Said Feelings Are Soft?

  1. Kathi Love says:

    Kaveh – This is a moving and meaning post. You continue to teach me so much. Thank you! And thank you for adding a personal aspect to these posts. I think it makes them so much better. Kathi

  2. Jim says:

    This is awesome – people learn so much more through self reflection and uses of metaphors and symbols than by giving them “your truth” and by giving them a lecture. Thank you. Jim Perry

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