Ode to Joy: Peter Bregman on Rafael Nadal, and the Courage to Feel

Yesterday, Peter Bregman made an impassioned call for emotional freedom in his Harvard Business Review essay, “Nadal is Strong Enough to Cry: Are You?” And what a day to do it, the 12th anniversary of September 11 when our emotions and memories might well be as strong as Nadal’s sobbing joy at winning the US Open for the second time. The fact is, we are a numbed-down culture, especially in our workplaces, for all the right reasons (convenience, public image, conformity) and all the wrong ones (burnout, fear and conformity).

20130911_5b“Where is that energy in our companies today? Where are the people leaping for joy, pumping their fists in the air, or weeping, either with happiness or grief?

I sometimes walk through the halls of various companies, looking at people working numbly at their desks or cubicles or nodding off in meetings, wondering, “where are the people?”

I’m not advocating for a workplace of loose cannons. I am advocating for a workplace of human beings.

Before his emotional outburst, Nadal played for hours, channeling the energy coursing through his body with controlled responses and deliberate, calculated movements. In other words, he managed his emotions.

That’s appropriate; it’s how any of us achieve any challenging objective, and we’ve become very good at it.

But after the game, where does all that energy go? Nadal’s post-game response was the natural eruption of energy pent up from the concentration of his game.

That’s appropriate too. Yet how many of us unrelentingly repress our emotions, or eat and drink them back down?

Years ago, when emotional intelligence became the next big thing, I thought that, perhaps, it would give us permission to express ourselves more authentically in our workplaces. It might teach us how to hold the emotions of others, to sit quietly, empathically, with someone who was crying, without trying to fix what was wrong. Or to celebrate our successes without losing our compassion toward others, whether they be friends or opponents.

But that never happened. For the most part, emotional intelligence is simply new jargon for discussing our emotions intellectually or codifying them in competency models. Meanwhile our feelings remain imprisoned in our heads.

That’s not the world I want to live in, and I don’t think you really want to live there either. Sure, it might keep us comfortable. Certainly it might feel safe. But only in the short run. Long term, keeping our emotions nice and presentable hurts us, hurts our relationships, leads to burn out, and makes us sick.”

I believe one of the biggest challenges for sustainable leadership is offering an empowered space for sharing appropriate emotional energy. As Bregman says, our feelings of safety and cocooned comfort may suffer in the short term. It’s hard to change habits. But think of the departments and even whole companies which have turned into toxic work environments because repressing feelings (joyful and sad) has turned into repressing relationships. Think of the passionate people who leave to join more innovative, holistic organizations because they aren’t willing to pay the price for emotional lock down.

With visionary and savvy leadership, emotional empowerment forestalls the eruption of conflicts long repressed and therefore unresolvable. And even if numbness and repression don’t describe the dynamics of an office, too much rationality is like too much salt — it ruins the nuances and flavors of a good meal or good work.

Lake Joy

Lake Joy (no, really!) thawing out with sunrise, in King County, Washington State

Or to use another metaphor, why are we so afraid to thaw out and really feel?

According to Janet Crawford, specialist in the intersection of neuroscience and business, the human system is driven more by unconscious and emotional forces than by logic. However, business structures are framed and locked down in logical paradigms, encouraging disengagement and isolation.

“How many times have you left a data-soaked, death by PowerPoint meeting unable to identify anything faulty with the “facts,” yet left with a feeling that something wasn’t quite right? Your unconscious mind might indeed be letting you know there’s a pattern that doesn’t fit.  Equally, it could be that the presentation was sound, but that it overwhelmed the limited capacity of your rational mind, while failing to satisfy your biological need to feel emotions like trust, acceptance, and excitement.” Read Victor Hwang’s interview with Crawford in Forbes, or check out Crawford’s website.

We already design our marketing and product design to appeal to the emotions of our customers! We talk a lot about authenticity and presence, and the importance of trust and engaged relationships at work. But we still live like cogs in cubicles, and it takes a toll on our health and the health of our corporate cultures. It’s time to genuinely acknowledge and celebrate the power and place of emotions and emotional energy as the source of excellence, human vitality and sustainable leadership.


  1. data-soaked, death by PowerPoint meeting gah, I remember those!


  2. […] Ode to Joy: Peter Bregman on Rafael Nadal, and the Courage to Feel (leadershipspirit.wordpress.com) […]


  3. […] it going too far to reimagine leadership as a combination of profound self-discipline and a sense of play? Can we take a holiday from negativity and find greater […]


  4. […] Joy: Peter Bregman celebrates emotional connection, and the willingness to express our joy and excitement as we struggle, fail and succeed. He wrote: “Years ago, when emotional […]


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