Leadership and fear, part 2: Squeaky voices and lessons learned

Leadership and fear, part 2: Squeaky voices and lessons learned

Last time, I wrote about flapping my little courage wings: taking a vocal workshop in spite of my longstanding fear of singing in public. My rational mind knows that there’s no actual danger here. I won’t break a limb, and it’s not likely that the other kids (fully-formed, polite, Northwestern adults) will openly mock me.  At the very worst, I’ll feel embarrassed by my rusty, awkward voice, and I might reaffirm my fear that I’m not a good singer.

Still, why bother with this uncomfortable experience? Basically, I had grown to resent this lingering, small-minded fear in my life.

Here’s one thing I know: The best things in my life and in my career have resulted from overcoming fear, embracing possibilities, trusting my resilience, and not worrying too much about failure. Of developing a new, more nuanced relationship to fear.

Two kinds of fear

In her book Playing Big, Tara Mohr talks about two different words in the Hebrew Scriptures that are used to talk about fear: Pachad and Yirah:

  • Pachad: This is the “over-reactive, irrational fear that stems from worries about what could happen, about the worst-case scenarios we imagine.”[1] This is the stuff of our clichéd nightmares: fear of eating alone in the school cafeteria while others whisper about us, of being ridiculed for getting a math problem wrong in front of the class. And, unexamined, these fears morph into their adult equivalents: holding back from adding your thoughts to a discussion about a risky proposal (because false harmony is safer than open disagreement), or sleepless nights worrying that the board is going to find flaws in your recommendations (which the crouching part of your self-identity automatically escalates into, “They’ll decide I’m incompetent and then they’ll fire me.”)
  • Yirah: This is the feeling that washes over us when we find ourselves inhabiting a larger space than we are used to, or when we feel connected to a sense of awe or to something greater than ourselves.[2] There’s an element of paradox to Yirah. Calm and breathlessness. A quiet confidence and an unspeakable thrill. It’s the heady mix of excitement and trepidation you feel when you say YES to a daunting and meaningful challenge. Or the heart-pounding stillness you felt right before you first said, “I love you” to the love of your life.

I love the distinction between these two types of fear.

When we are IN a state of fear, we often don’t look at what, exactly, we are experiencing. It’s one big muddle of red lights flashing and alarm blaring WARNING, DANGER, WARNING, DANGER. But we have all experienced different kinds of fear. And it’s worth examining: What’s at risk?

When I was offered my first position as an Executive Director, I almost said no. In my fear, I wasn’t focused on my skills or my track record. I wasn’t focused on my deep commitment to the work, or the opportunity to make a difference. I was possessed by my fears, and mired in all the worst-case scenarios that I could imagine. “What if I make fool of myself? What if I’m not up to the task? What if I let everyone down?” I was horribilizing the opportunity. That was Pachad.

At the same time, I also experienced a thrilling fear and a sense of deep purpose and commitment: “Really?! I get to do this, and I’m ready to try?!” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I also felt honored and nervous and strangely confident. I recognized the contributions I had already made within the organization and the community. And I felt a deep sense of clarity: This was an important step for me to take, and I could trust myself to be resourceful, persistent, and collaborative. I didn’t have to be perfect, it was enough to do my best. That was Yirah.

So, back to the vocal workshop. I know that my fear of singing has to do with the fear of looking stupid and the fear of being judged. It’s definitely Pachad. And I’m increasingly intolerant of those places where I let this fearful shrinking rule the roost.

What I learned from scaring myself:

So here’s what happened. I made myself climb the stairs to the studio. I made myself go in. I sidled up to a lovely woman who was knitting, and I made myself start a conversation. In these tiny actions, I committed to doing my best, to staying open, and to trusting the kindness of strangers. Here’s what happened in the workshop itself:

  • I got WAY out of my comfort zone. I sang out loud, with others and on my own. I had moments of paralytic self-consciousness and moments of simple satisfaction and genuine connection.
  • Occasionally, I made a sequence of sounds that could be mistaken for singing. At other times, my voice cracked, didn’t sound like I wanted it to, or took a moment to find its feet. Throughout, I generally stayed curious about the process, rather than being judgmental. And I didn’t die. Of shame or anything else.
  • I bonded with a small group of fabulous people, in the way that happens when a group shares a slightly traumatic experience (say, for example, heavy turbulence in a small float plane, or a vocal workshop for the terrified). I will probably never see most of them again, and certainly not in the same configuration. But for those three hours, I was part of creating a gorgeous community of strangers, based on courage, vulnerability, persistence, and encouragement.

Whether it’s finding my singing voice or redesigning my relationship with fear, I get that it’s a practice. You don’t go to the gym once and become a triathlete. You don’t take one vocal workshop and become Aretha Franklin. And you don’t do one scary thing and become a super-hero. (Or, well, that hasn’t happened for me yet, but maybe it will for you.)

Regardless, I’m so glad that I made the leap. And I might even do it again.

YOUR TURN: What’s your relationship with fear? And what’s the next thing you’ll do to scare yourself?

NEXT TIME: Reflecting on the New Year


[1] From Chapter 3 of Playing Big, by Tara Mohr, citing Rabbi Alan Lew.

[2] From Chapter 3 of Playing Big, by Tara Mohr, citing Rabbi Alan Lew.

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