21st Century Leadership: On Overcoming Fear and Negativity to Work for a Livable Future

This week, coming off the exhilarating high of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I started teaching a brand-new class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, “Leadership and Public Speaking for Social and Environmental Justice.”

We spent the first day just working with the concept of Leadership—thinking about great leaders and what qualities they possessed that helped them achieve their goals and bring so many others along with them.

And then we thought about what might hold us back from stepping into our own potential as leaders.

The number one obstacle to becoming a great leader, at least from the perspective of the dozen or so students in the room that day, is FEAR.

They quickly generated a long list of very specific paralyzing fears, and as each fear was voiced, the nodding and comments in the room made it clear that it was widely shared.

I certainly recognized many of my own fears on their list, which I will append at the bottom of this post, along with our list of the qualities necessary for great leadership.

A big part of my motivation for offering this class is simply to help students face and learn to work with their fears and insecurities, rather than doing what I did at their age, which was to allow my fears to push me back onto the sidelines, an observer rather than someone who felt empowered to be out in front leading others.

It’s been a long journey for me to learn that, as Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins put it in their excellent little book You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear, “Fear is pure energy. It’s a signal. It might mean stop. It could mean go.”

Frances Moore Lappe

Frances Moore Lappe

I remember when I invited Frances Moore Lappé to speak at Simon’s Rock a few years ago, she began her talk acknowledging that being up alone on the stage, in the spotlight, made her nervous. But, she said, she has learned to recognize that fluttery, jittery feeling as a sign that she is doing something important, something that matters—and to let the nerves (what some might call the adrenaline rush) work for her rather than against her.

As someone who for many years was overcome with stage fright every time I had to speak in front of an audience, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

JBH 2014 Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

JBH 2014
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

It wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that the multitudinous fears I had been carrying around with me all those years began to melt away, and I can’t say I know for sure what did it, other than forcing myself, over and over again, to get up there in front of audiences and DO IT ANYWAY, because I knew that a) the work I was being called to do was important, and not just for myself; b) if I didn’t speak about the issues I wanted to focus on in that particular time and place, no one else would; and c) there was absolutely no good rational reason for me to be afraid of speaking to the audiences I was addressing.

Clearly, one necessary ingredient of leadership is a willingness to walk with the fears, risking encounters with whatever devils those fears represent.

We’re out of time: climate change demands extraordinary leadership, now

If I am propelled now into doing all I can to catalyze leadership in my community, whether in the classroom or through the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, it is because I know that we no longer have the luxury of time to stand silently on the sidelines observing, as I did for a good part of my life.

There is simply too much at stake now, and things are happening too fast.

There are some signs that the American political and intellectual establishment is finally shaking off its lethargy and beginning to at least recognize that yes, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report pulled no punches in documenting and describing just how dire our immediate global future looks, thanks to human-induced climate change. And for a change, this “old news” was immediately carried on the front page of The New York Times, which has been ignoring and downplaying the climate change issue for years—and strongly echoed by its editorial page as well.

melting-polar-ice-caps

Yes, it’s true—climate change is real, it’s already happening, and there is no telling where it will lead us. If governments immediately start to act with furious speed and concentration, there is a chance we could backpedal our way into a precarious new normal, keeping our climate about as it is now.

If this kind of leadership is not shown, then all bets are off for the future—and we’re not talking about a hundred years from now, we’re talking about the future we and our children and grandchildren will be living through in the coming decades.

In short, we are living through extraordinary times, times that demand extraordinary leadership. And not just from politicians and heads of state, but from each and every one of us.

As global citizens with a stake in our future, each one of us is now being called to turn off the TV, get up off the couch, step out of the shadows, and SHOW UP to do whatever we can do, to offer our skills and talents to the greater good.

For some that will mean showing up at the 350.org climate change rally in Washington DC this month, demanding that our Congress and President represent the interests of we the people, not just the fossil fuel industry.

Teachers like me can start to offer students the tools and skills they will need to become the 21st century leaders humanity needs—leaders who see the big picture, respond empathetically to the plight not just of humans but of all living beings on the planet, and have the resolve, drive and courage to stand up and lead the way towards implementing the solutions that already exist, and innovating the solutions that have not yet been imagined.

Our media likes to bombard us daily with all the bad news on the planet: wars and random violence, natural disasters, corruption and greed, unemployment and health crises, environmental degradation…the list goes on and on. The cumulative effect of this constant negative litany is a feeling of hopelessness, despair, powerlessness and paralysis—the antithesis of what is needed for energetic, forward-looking, positive leadership.

Simply becoming aware of the extent to which your daily absorption of bad news depresses your spirit is a step on the road to switching the channel, metaphorically speaking, and beginning to focus on what can be done to make things better.

This is not pie-in-the-sky rainbow thinking, this is about doing what is necessary to ensure a livable future. One of the most important qualities of good leaders, my students and I agreed, is positive thinking and a can-do spirit.

If there was ever a time these qualities were needed, it is now—and in each and every one of us.

 

NOTES FROM Leaderhip & Public Speaking class, Day One

Great leaders are:

Charismatic / magnetic

Trustworthy

Change agents

Have something to say that resonates with others

Have a unique/original/relatable idea

Tenacious

Resilient

Creative

Empathetic/loving/caring

Passionate

Fearlessness/being able to embrace your fears

Engaging

Good organizers of people

Able to motivate & energize people

Good collaborators

Good at building teams; good team captains

Good at delegating

Synergizers

Convincing & persuasive

Unswayed by negative feedback & challenges

Self-confident

Able to overcome adversity

Able to share vulnerabilities

Focused/single-minded

Evangelical

Able to attract other strong people

Able to withstand criticism; thick-skinned

Good models: “be the change you want to see”

Articulate

Able to communicate with different groups of people & in different forms of media

Chameleons–able to get along with different kinds of people

Diligent/hardworking

Initiative-takers

Visionary innovators

Able to be humble and stay strategically under the radar

Good at self-promotion

Have good decision-making skills; decisiveness

Understanding of sacrifice/self-sacrifice

Generous

Assertive; firm but not attacking—“real power doesn’t need to attack”

Clear on what they want; clear goals

Intuitive

Considerate

Have common sense

Have a strong moral compass

Have a sense of justice

Want to be of service to the greater good

Want to build merit

Cautious when necessary/ not impulsive

Thoughtful

Resistant to corruption

 

JBH rainbow treeWhat holds us back from becoming leaders?

Fear

Fear of responsibility

Fear of judgment

Fear of failure

Shyness

Fear of being seen/heard

Fear of not being seen/heard

Fear of letting people down

Fear of being replaceable

Fear of fulfilling certain negative stereotypes (“Ban Bossy”)

Fear of being perceived as manly (if you’re a woman)

Fear of not being “man enough” (if you’re a man)

Fear of not being feminine enough

Fear of not being a good role model

Fear of having the minority opinion (saying something unpopular, not being able to

convince people)

Fear of being part of a marginalized group & expecting not to be heard/respected

Fear of leaving someone behind / a voice behind / not hearing other issues (ranking & hierarchy)

Fear of neglecting other issues

Fear of not being taken seriously

Fear of being too passionate

Fear of creating conflict

Fear of wading into controversy

Fear of taking a stand

Fear of changing your opinion/selling out for success

Fear of losing your authenticity

Fear of being politically incorrect

Fear of being perceived incompetent

Fear of not having what it takes

Fear of not being ready / not knowing what your “issue” is

Fear of being seen

 

Negative Qualities that may hold us back

Closemindedness

Righteousness

Malleability

Empathy—taking things too personally

Numbness/alienation

Staying under the radar

Aggression

Defensiveness

Being gullible, believing what you hear, not being discerning

 

What Systemic/Structural Circumstances Hold Us Back?

Acting to save others instead of trying to achieve your own goals/authentic mission

Youth

Education

Social upbringing

Poverty

Not having access to audience—tools to connect

Race/class/gender/sexuality/etc—social categories

Location (geographic)

Language

Filial piety—not wanting to go against expectations & will of family & society

Influence of media on self-esteem

 

Living with fear

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, I have been doing some thinking about fear.

I am no stranger to anxiety.  When I was a kid, between the ages of about 8 and 12, I suffered terrible anxiety attacks whenever I had to be separated from my mother.  I worried something would happen to her, and although I had a loving father, brother and extended family, I felt like I would be totally unable to cope with losing her.

When she would go out for the evening, I would get a full-blown anxiety attack, complete with hyperventilation, nausea and panic.  It wouldn’t subside until she was back home safe, and it was not rational—there was nothing she or anyone else could say to calm me down.  I just had to live through it, over and over, until finally, as I moved into puberty, the fear dissipated and went away.

Sometimes I have wondered whether this was related to a past-life experience.  Did I lose my mother in a previous life?  Was I left alone and unprotected?

Is it possible, as Linda Hogan and others have suggested, that we can be haunted by ancestral legacies of violence?

Both of my sons also suffered from irrational fear during their childhoods.

My older son went through a period of terrible night terrors, where he would sleep-walk under the influence of gut-wrenching anxiety and sobbing fear, not calming down until we managed, with great difficulty, to wake him up from whatever nightmare was possessing him.

He would not remember the episode in the morning, and would be sheepish when we’d tell him what had happened; in his waking life, he was calm and unencumbered by fear.  He hasn’t had one of these night terror attacks for about five years now.

My younger son developed a stutter and a nervous twitch in his early childhood, and would cry and talk about being almost paralyzed with what he called “worry.”  No amount of rational talking-through made any difference; he could not explain what he was afraid of, he was just deeply, inchoately fearful.

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

One day, when he was about five, I decided to take him on a long hike up a tall mountain, and we picked up small rocks along the way.  When we got to the top, I told him we were going to throw his worries over the edge of the mountain cliff, and they would be gone and leave him alone.  A smile lit up his face, and he began chucking the rocks off the cliff with intensity.  That day he was happy, and slowly, over the next couple of years, his unexplained anxiety did lift.

What’s perplexing to me about this “family anxiety” is that none of it has any basis in actual trauma.

Each of us did experience a minor trigger, it’s true.

I was separated from my mother when I was seven, for about two weeks, after a car accident landed her in the hospital; but then she came home and was fine.

My older son attributes his night terrors to an incident where he accidentally locked his younger brother, an infant, in the car on a very hot day, and the police had to come and break into the car to get the baby out.  But we were all fine, and of course we absolved the older child of any blame, it was just an innocent mistake.

My younger son developed asthma after an incident of severe pneumonia at seven months, and he was always afraid of the hospital, with the dark x-ray room, the menacing machines, and the possibility of separation from his parents.

But these are such minor precipitating incidents, compared to, say, the shock of bearing witness to a massacre, or living through a rape or domestic violence.

I can’t claim to have any inside knowledge of the kind of traumatic stress that survivors of serious violence must deal with, but having been taken for a ride by severe, irrational anxiety, I can sympathize deeply.

The truth is that all of us, in today’s hyper-linked media age, are living with the scars of bearing repeated witness to violence.

One of our greatest strengths as human beings is our imagination.  Put our active imaginations together with our empathy, and it should be no surprise to find that so many of us are feeling in our own bodies the fear and anxiety that are properly part of others’ experience, not our own.

How many murders and massacres, real and fictional, have we witnessed through the news and entertainment media?  How many times have we watched homes being bombed, people being shot, crazy predators on the loose?

The presence of 300 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S. does not make me feel safe.  It makes me feel afraid—and this time, the fear is rational.

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