Leadership and fear, part 1: Scaring myself on purpose
Do one thing everyday that scares you. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
A couple of weeks ago, I flapped my little courage wings and signed up for a vocal workshop. When I mentioned this to my consulting partner, he raised an eyebrow, shook his head, and laughed. He is perplexed and slightly stunned that I would CHOOSE to spend a free Sunday afternoon with strangers, doing something that terrifies me. And at the same time, he knows that this is the kind of thing that I do to myself now and again.
For some people, singing is second nature. It brings them joy and satisfaction. That’s not me. I’m more in the “anxiety and shame” camp. Me joining a vocal workshop is like a vegetarian entering a hotdog-eating contest. But the flyer said, “Please join us if you are terrified of singing!” THESE are my people, and this was my chance.
There are lots of things I do that people see as brave. I have been a commencement speaker. I have done live radio debates about things I believe in. I have been brought in specifically to facilitate high-stakes, conflict-ridden meetings. And yet, I’m scared of singing. I’ve often said that I’d need years of therapy before I’d sing in public. (OK, there was that one time, a couple decades back and with a couple cocktails under my belt, when I belted out both parts of Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” in the shadows of a karaoke bar. But I digress.)
My fear of singing dates back to a second grade incident with my music teacher: Twenty-four kids were scrunched onto the risers in the music room, with Mrs. Ream leading us in a ‘call and response’ song. She went around the room, and had each of us sing back to her individually. After my turn, she stopped the song. Rolling her eyes, exasperated, she said: “If you’re not going to even try, then you shouldn’t sing at all.” I was completely blindsided. I WAS trying. And my exuberant, music-loving, elementary school heart was crushed.
As stories of childhood trauma go, this is pretty light stuff. I get that. At the same time, ridiculous as I feel admitting it, that was a formative experience. The sting of Mrs. Ream’s judgment and the embarrassment I felt were the beginning of my long career of whisper singing, lip-syncing, and studiously avoiding sing-a-longs.
So why is this important, and what does it have to do with leadership?
There are a couple of unspoken lessons that we learn from formative experiences like this:
- Either/or thinking: Competence and ability are valued. Effort and risk-taking are not.
- Circular thinking: You have to be good at something before it’s worth trying it. (So how, exactly, do you get good at something you’re not willing to try?)
- Fear-based thinking: Replicating a known formula is acceptable. Approaches that veer off course (for example, my earnest, warbly second-grade vocal stylings) are dangerous, because they can lead to harsh judgments or ostracism.
If we don’t question these lessons, they show up in careers and in our lives. They become part of the culture of our organizations and our families. These lessons, generalized, create patterns of operating from fear, rather than from possibilities:
- Holding back: Not speaking up unless you’re SURE you’re right, because you’re afraid of looking stupid.
- Playing small: Avoiding risk, even when the status quo is stifling or stagnant.
- Allowing fear to be your guide: Rather than focusing on what you want to create, or what might be possible, you and your team focus on saving face and sure wins.
And here’s one thing I know in my bones: The best things in my life and in my career have come from defying those lessons. Of developing a new, more nuanced relationship to fear.
YOUR TURN: Where are you letting fear stand in your way? And how do you get yourself back in the game? What’s the last thing you did to scare yourself?
NEXT TIME: Two kinds of fear, and what I learned from confronting my fear of singing.