Today’s radio interviews were on the general topic Leadership Habits. In times of stress, we fall back on our habits — good or bad. And it is in those times of stress that we most need to provide good leadership.
Therefore, the reliable way to become a good leader in a crisis is to practice leadership skills until they become Leadership Habits.
It might also be useful to seek out stress-causing situations and volunteer for leadership roles — perhaps the Red Cross might be the ideal training ground.
If you want to be a good leader — if you want to be the kind of person that other people turn to, the kind of person that other people take courage from — you must have courage. And, just to be clear, courage does not mean “the absence of fear” — it means acting in the face of fear, and acting correctly.
Our first guest was Prafulla Pande. He spent 18 years in Corporate America, then 10 years with startup companies, and the last four coaching. He teaches executive leadership, and writes a series of essays on leadership, in particular one on the topic of fear and acting despite fear.
Praf had a nearly fatal car accident that changed his life. It made him think about being afraid. He points out that one of the most debilitating kinds of fear is the fear that exists only in your head. That is because, unlike real fears that have some grounding in the real world and thus partake of the limitations of all real-world things, a free-floating fear can be unlimited.
In fact it’s the fear that you carry in your own head that you absolutely must confront — other fears can be dodged (for a real-world fear you could avoid the circumstance, such as public speaking, that brings up the feeling). At the same time, one of the sources of courage is your own past successes. Every success you have ever had represents proof that you have the ability to succeed. And unlike external or artificial sources of self-esteem — such as self-help books, motivational speeches, or the positive examples of others — your success is uniquely yours, and cannot be taken from you. That means that your past success acts as a foundation stone upon which you can build a self-image that is both accurate and supports future courageous action.
We all have, in our minds, voices saying that we should be afraid. Through practice, we can disempower our fears and develop the mental muscles, or the skill or habit, of facing difficult situations squarely and acting correctly despite our fears.
When you are in a leadership position, especially a startup, you absolutely will encounter fear. Sometimes it’s your own, sometimes it’s your coworkers’ fears. One of the services you can provide to your coworkers is to develop this habit of facing your own fears and overcoming them. That provides a good example to others.
In order to address fear and build courage, the first step is to identify the fears, and be specific about them. Frequently, when looking at our fears, we find that the more closely we look and the more detailed we are, the less there is really to fear.
If you are coaching someone else, have them delve into their own experiences, and call up some examples of times when they faced their fears and showed courage. By building on past positive past experiences, we can help build the courage of today.
Another technique is to identify the worst thing that could possibly happen. What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? Start with that endpoint, and see if you could live with it. Once you realize you can, you just limited the size of the fear.
Step one, notice that I have fear. Step two, remember my own past courage. Step three, put a name to the fear — shine a light on it so that, like a monster under the bed, it shrinks and vanishes. Step four, identify the worst thing that could happen.
There is a distinction between inner courage and outer courage — what we have in our own heads versus what we show others. Of the two, inner courage is the more important.
Often, our fears are generated by our own weaknesses. By becoming aware of those weaknesses, we can take away from them their power to generate fear. Further, by addressing those areas of weakness — by strengthening ourselves in those areas — we will enjoy two benefits: we will make ourselves better people, and we will root out a source of fear and insecurity, replacing it with a wellspring of courage.
And that’s also going to have a positive effect on the people around you. Your coworkers and your family are fully aware of your weaknesses. They’re probably more aware of them than you are. As you admit to a weakness, look it in the eyes, and start to work on yourself to strengthen yourself in that area, you are immediately setting a very positive example.
You are immediately transformed from a person with limitations, into a person who faces his limitations and works on them.
As Steve Balzac mentioned on a previous episode, when teams are forming, they need a sense of safety. Teams will identify as their leader the person who provides the sense of safety that allows for team formation.
Praf does a lot of work on teambuilding with his clients. That involves encouraging them to share their life stories. When they are able to share their personal histories, particularly of occasions when they confronted fear, it becomes an opportunity for all team members to respect each other and understand each other more deeply.
One of the things the leader has to do is to confront unacceptable behaviors. In order for that sort of confrontation to go well, the leader has to have the self confidence, the willingness to be possibly uncomfortable, and the courage to stand up for standards. The book “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” talks about the stage of building trust, followed by a stage of actually inciting controversy in order to give people the opportunity to disagree while maintaining their camaraderie.
A really strong team is one where people feel open and able to share their opinions in an unguarded way.
Another area where fear is important is in managing change. The leader needs to give people a sense of comfort, needs to draw out their concerns and address them, needs to have a conversation with them about the change.
There are a number of ways to get at this question of “what’s the worst thing that can happen?” This is covered very well in the book Go for No. I have personal experience with this, and Praf was very amused by my story. When I was 23 years old living in San Leandro California, and I went to a small rundown bar in Oakland that had extremely good blues bands playing there. And I stood there, trying to work up the nerve to ask somebody to dance, and I was paralyzed with fear. And on top of the fear I felt stupid, because I traveled all this way and paid the cover charge, and I was not doing that which I had set out to do. And I finally talked myself out of this place of indecision by setting myself a goal — I would ask three different women to dance, and after I got my third rejection, then I would give myself permission to go home.
And of course, I didn’t get any rejections at all, and I danced continuously for two hours with almost every woman there.
In retrospect, it’s so obvious that everybody was there to dance, and the risk of rejection was much lower than I had imagined. Even more importantly, the danger of rejection was itself overblown in my mind — if one or two or three women had in fact turned me down, what harm would have befallen me? None. Possibly a mild bruise to the ego. And yet the prospect of this tiny risk had loomed so large in my mind that it had, in essence, paralyzed me.
It was only years later that I realized what I had done to break out of the paralysis of my fear — that by setting a rejection quota for myself, I had reduced the risk and I had named my fear, and I had even turned the thing that I feared into the thing that I was seeking. And ever since then, every time I have used this technique, it has worked.