A meeting room, forty people in attendance:
“Good Morning… um. I want to… um let me see here, oh, yes, I just want to say how delighted I… um am to be here today.”
@Audience1 tweets: “Really? I mean #MrBadPresenter your hands are covering your crotch, dude!”
@Audience2 tweets: “#MrBadPresenter sure as hell don’t look delighted. Definitely not a smile on your face! It’s like a death mask. Rictus.”
“Today I am pleased to share..um be able to some ah very important information and ah timely… too! I am certain you will find it valuable, so let’s get going shall we…?”
@Audience 1 tweets: “Is his foot caught in a bear trap? #MrBadPresneter hasn’t moved a muscle since he stood up except for his flap-flap lips… god, why me?”
@Audience 2 tweets: “Important, right! The only thing important is my boss–he made me come. #MrBadPresenter really wants to be boring! Time to catch some zzz’s.”
And so it starts. You find yourself in front of a group, perhaps at a business conference, or an office presentation. You can hear, well you think you can hear (and will later confirm on the feeds), what your audience is saying and thinking. As they hunch over their phones tweeting, even hashtagging you with your very own albatross, and worse (you imagine) a large dagger shaped icicle, three feet long, is slowly, inexorably, inserting itself down your throat.
GREAT! Now you can’t breathe either.
And you suddenly know, as if visited by a clever tooth fairy who glibly tells you that the only way to get out of this horrible situation is to say something that will make them love you, or at least like you, or better yet; disappear you, as in “poof”! But no, you didn’t plan on having a giant icicle shoved down your throat so you didn’t come prepared with Tooth Fairy Plan B; the magic of improv, or a riff of clever, funny, and engaging words, acts, noises that would make them laugh, or be interested, or just be nice. You didn’t prepare any of those things you now so desperately need in order to extract the icicle and get you going. God, why are you doing this for in the first place?
Then of course you freeze. Or more prosaically, you choke.
You know what I am talking about, right? If you read this blog, you know. In real life, leaders are often frightened. Public speaking is a common requirement leaders regularly face. You’re not alone: surveys show that public speaking is our greatest phobia. One recent university survey concluded that over 25% of Americans fear public speaking more than anything else. Each time I stand up in front of two or fifty-two people, I am hit by a blast of fear: it jumps up and mugs me the moment I face the group. We are not talking about some abstract idea, a theoretical fear. We are talking about: F E A R ! ! ! Not some lowercase typed word buried in hundreds of other words in an article. The feeling of the icicle, that twist or torque you feel in the gut, the solar plexus, the dry mouth, the sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, an onrushing headache or surge of dizziness, the tightness in your chest, bulging eyes, the seemingly irresistible urge to run, strike out, hit, destroy … that experience psychologists sometimes describe as “fight or flight”.
Are we on the same page?
Today’s lesson is about leadership and fear.
Most people who are offered leadership positions say no, or no thank you. Most don’t want to cross that line because of fear. It’s true, to be a leader is risky: it regularly does have fearful moments, starting immediately after you accept a leadership role. From the beginning, you don’t know if you will be accepted (even if you are the “boss”). That is fearful! Were you to interview people who have chosen leadership roles you would discover most of them regularly experience fear and discomfort. In this light, “no thank you” is a reasonable answer.
For others, one of the issues people face when considering a leadership assignment is whether they are willing to stand up in front of a group and speak, to make arguments publically, to get important points across, to convince others to action. Even the pros, those who speak often, experience fear. You may have heard about the ubiquitous USA Today survey that asked people whether they would rather be the dead person at a funeral or the person giving the eulogy. The majority said they would rather be in the coffin.
But for some, the experience of fear isn’t necessarily a show-stopper. Many people do say yes to the leaders’ role. If you talk to leaders about their experience of leading, they will tell you they have many fearful moments, but for them (generally) the experience of fear is more of an inflection point, the place at which the he or she either grows because of success or grows because of a failure. In either case, there is growth. Most senior executives will tell you their highest and best learning doesn’t come from successful outcomes in business; it comes from making mistakes. You may well ask why a person would want a job whose learning curve is described by fear and mistakes? The answer for most of them is that the leadership job is an adventure, someone has to do it, and although it is often fearful, it can also be generative and gratifying. From a distance, you might also see that every group endeavor (business or otherwise) needs a leader. And yet this idea of fear is just that, an idea. The experience of being a leader and encountering fear is not just an idea: it is bracing an unpredictable experience. I am reminded of the old saying: “In theory, theory and practice produce the same result, but in practice they don’t.” In that spirit, let’s move from the theory to practice and see what happens.
Imagine for a moment you have just accepted a leadership job teaching newbies how to ski. You know that beginning skiers want nothing more than some type of certainty that they can control their path down the hill. They want to turn left, turn right and most importantly, they really want to be able to stop. If you ski, you know the secret to control is to lean down the hill. Yet the first time you are on a slope – even an almost flat bunny hill type of slope – you can say “lean down the hill” as often as you’d like, but your body can’t hear it. Your body only wants to lean back – way back! The “right action” to guarantee control is out of reach. It is intuitively outrageous, beyond provocative, your body is screaming “don’t lean down the hill because you will die!” So there it is, the big challenge. In the learning stages of skiing, leaning down the hill triggers an alarmingly high level of fear in the student. Because the student has yet to acquire the experience of carving long speedy banana-shaped turns, she has no way of appreciating the physics of skiing and the great increase in control imparted by leaning down the hill. So starting at rest, she is in a kind of comfort zone. You, the instructor, must somehow convince her to move towards imminent danger by leaning (just a little at first) down the hill. She has to take that risk or she will never get control of her skis. Once she has a single successful experience however, she can lean down the hill more easily, and as this happens, she experiences increased control, a little more at a time, often by falling some too. As the students improve some, the ski teacher’s confidence also grows, (fearful inflection moment, moved through it) so the leader and the student share this joint experience of net success. The student is able to hear the teacher (leader), leans down the hill some, and is soon carving a giant banana turn and stopping at the bottom of the run in a splendid spray cloud of snow.
Now you, the leader, some weeks later, are starting out again with a new group of skiing wannabes. You’ve been through this before. The fearful inflection point is less debilitating: you have experience. Nonetheless, there is still discomfort: you are facing a new group, you must get to know them in order to gain their trust, enough so that they are willing to do that preposterous and unnatural thing – lean down the hill. But now you know more about being a leader. You see this group as your next challenge: that’s it, a leadership challenge, so off you go… right through the feeling of fear, right through the inflection point.
Weeks later, the Queen of the Mountain (head of the ski school) asks you to get up in front of a gathering of ski instructors and teach them how to teach skiing…! “Huh, why me,” you ask?
“Because you had such success teaching young students. Now we would like you to teach other instructors how you did it, oh and by the way, we are making you our new chief instructor, congratulations!”
Here comes the icicle. This is a much bigger challenge!
Okay, you think, I certainly feel the fear, my heart, sweaty palms and so on. Then you take a couple of deep breaths, shake your head, stretch to relieve some of the tension and then you go to your desk to prepare an introductory session for the whole school of ski instructors, as their new leader. Here is part of the prepared text you deliver to the ski instructors the following day:
“As the students face the risk of falling – under your watchful eye”, you opine, “they lean down the hill and bit by bit, they learn to turn to the left and the right and most importantly to STOP safely. It is a glorious moment, just glorious. Especially remembering that when you first met your students, you were afraid and they were afraid. Will they listen to you? Why should they listen to you? What happens if they all fall and walk away? We all experience these and perhaps many more uncomfortable doubts. But at that moment of fear, you just take a deep breath, smile to yourself and to them, greet them one by one, learn their names, chat them up a bit and then begin to teach. An hour later you watch them ski, fall some, lean down hill and learn. They get better, you get better, all through the portal of fear. We know that humans are wired to avoid fear, but for you, as a qualified and skillful ski instructor, that moment of fear is a portal, a door to growth and a successful leadership experience! In time you will have taught several groups to ski, you will have been through this whole cycle several times and you will grow through the sense of accomplishment, you have taught your students well, they can ski. I know you will like that experience a lot. Thank you very much. Now let’s get out there. Your students are waiting, time to have some real fun!
In a final scene you are standing at the top of the ski hill watching several instructors teaching pods of students how to lean down the hill. As you survey the scene below you feel the joy of helping (leading). It awaits each person who is asked to lead a team, group, association, or an enterprise. Someone must lead, someone must help the group get ready for whatever happens next, to learn and work together, to help the team members and the group, as a whole experience, to describe a better future. As this unfolds, there will be fearful inflection points, but in time, everybody is figuratively leaning down the hill, and you and they together are having a better more fulfilling, and richer experience.
Every community needs one or more leaders. Next time you are offered this opportunity, you might consider saying “yes” (through the first inflection point) and then off you all go, up the learning curve. You grow, each team member grows and the group as a whole grows; good things happen and the whole community is enriched. Yes, leadership has fearful moments, but it is also purposeful, rewarding and necessary work. And anyone can learn: just say yes, and pass through the first inflection point to the next better place.