In leadership and in life, if you’re going to play full out for a big goal, one thing is for sure: emotions will flare up.

If you’re a CEO and announce to your team that you want to 10x the size of the business in two years, or if you’re setting your team on an entirely new course, your inner voice will surely step in.

The infernal critic

Our egoic inner voice will do what it can to derail us from our dreams or what is truly important to us. It will tell us all the reasons why it won’t happen, be it that we need more training or more money—anything to prevent us from taking the plunge and going for what we really want.

As a rule of thumb, this inner dialogue is rarely constructive. It dominates our thinking with negative judgments and opinions driven by negative feelings.

Identifying these feelings, taking a good look at them and choosing to let them go is at the heart of self-leadership. By continually catching and releasing negative thoughts and feelings, we can stay focused on our desired end result.

At first glance, it may appear that being an unemotional type might have an advantage in this respect. One might think that those devoid of pesky doubts clouding their thoughts — those with a cast iron froideur — are free to dream big dreams and stoically march forth toward achieving them.

However, this is not the case. Think of iconic leaders past and present: Steve Jobs was a famous crier; American Civil War hero General Grant bawled all night during The Battle of Bull Run; and Alexander The Great famously got so angry with his best friend that he ran him through with a sword during a night of heavy drinking.

No, not having access to feelings is a disadvantage for truly creative leadership—leadership that causes the extraordinary to happen. 

I should know, I spent my life until I was 30 wholly disengaged from my emotions. I cried a total of once in my twenties. A therapist once diagnosed me as being pathologically English!

Why we need access to our feelings

The problem with blocking our feelings is that we have no sight of what’s ultimately running our show.

It is hard to pick up on our inner dialogue. It’s always on, automatic. However, it’s in the background and becomes so familiar that we don’t notice it. We’re like the fish doesn’t know it’s in water.

Being emotionally shut down exacerbates this state. If I’m shut down from my body and feelings, I can’t be fully present to this often sabotaging narrative in my mind. When I’m shut down, I can’t pick up on those feelings driving my inner story. Even if my inner dialogue is saying: ‘You’re great, you can do this’ – if it’s coming from, say, a fear of not being good enough, then I wouldn’t be able to identify this.

If I’m shut down, my sabotaging inner voice will direct me away from my big dreams, or perhaps towards dreams that aren’t really going to fulfill me, without me being able to detect the negative emotions driving it. I end up living a life of automaticity, primarily guided by external stimuli. This state of being makes for good employees or managers, but not creative leaders.

Mastering the emotional self

To master myself in service of becoming a great leader, I must welcome my feelings. If the secret to outstanding leadership is putting dreams and commitment above feelings, I must be able to feel my feelings as a prerequisite to separating from them. I must separate from my feelings in order to put them in their proper place.

The art of emotional mastery, then, is to feel and separate, not shut down and ignore. I must be able to feel my feelings and respond:

I hear you, I feel you, and now I’m choosing to focus on my desired end result.