I work with a person who is really afraid of snakes (ophidiophobia); certainly not an unusual phobia. Most of us experience some kind of phobic response; heights, mice, germs, crowds etc. The term phobia comes to us from the Greek word Phobos which means fear or mortal fear. I suffer from a mild version of claustrophobia—especially when stuck on a runway in a cramped regional jet where the vents don’t work and my hefty seat partner is continuously and silently burping some awful cloud of pepperoni.
Now any sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, or hell, even an economist will tell you that fear is a necessary human emotion. Fear is a great teacher. Being afraid of heights is good because falling and dying is bad. Fear often defines greatness. Most of my heroes are people who are not afraid to say they are afraid—but they have learned to work through and even use their fear to achieve amazing goals.
Let’s get back to my work colleague with ophidiophobia (snakes). It would be one thing if she had a strong fear response when she saw a four foot coiled diamondback rattlesnake hissing and rattling five feet in front of her as she walked down a path. It is another thing to freak out in the garden section of Home Depot as she sees a stack of coiled hoses. Fear can be rational and helpful—and it can be non-rational, petrifying, and debilitating.
In Frank Herbert’s amazing science fiction opus Dune, the protagonist observes that “Fear is the mind killer, it is a little death.”
When we are captured by irrational fears (fear of carpeting for example) or when we have an excessive reaction to reasonable fears (snakes, sharks, IRS agents) we become frozen, unable to act, irrational. In Al Gore’s book, The Assault on Reason he says that “…fear is the greatest enemy of reason.” When driven by fear we build prejudice and create division. He quotes Supreme Court Justice Brandeis saying, “Men fear witches and burn women.”
For the past twenty years I have made a formal and informal study of leadership. Many of my ideas along with the wonderful insights of Carmen Voilleque are described in our book, Evolutionaries. In a recent discussion with two very successful Evolutionary executives it occurred to me that many of the techniques these executives were using were really strategies for mastering the kinds of fears that keep others from making change, being strategic, being innovative, or even being compassionate.
Again, from The Assault on Reason, Gore says, “Leadership means inspiring us to manage through our fears.” Yes, yes, yes. Evolutionary leaders know how to identify the rational and non-rational elements of fear that freeze action. What are the fears that cripple organizations? Here is my top five list—I am sure you can add more of your own:
- Fear of Failure and fear of Success
- Fear of being an outsider
- Fear of being caught as an imposter
- Fear of being disliked or maligned
- Fear of conflict
The connection between leadership and managing fear is incredibly powerful. Back to Gore’s observation that leaders inspire us to manage fear; I like the notion of connecting “fear” and “inspiration.” When we are inspired by clear and compelling values; we face down fear.
I was one of the millions stunned by the incredible beauty of “the woman in a red dress” captured by a journalists camera during recent protests in Istanbul. There she is, so apparently relaxed, being blasted with tear gas in front of a line of battle dressed riot police. The picture in this blog is low resolution, go find a good clear version—it is amazing.
Certainly a wall of armed and armored men would be frightening, but our heroine faces them down with strength and dignity. She is protesting she is making a statement; she is standing for strong values. Values push us through fear.
It was fifty years ago that Medgar Evers was shot in the back and killed by Bryan De La Beckwith. The act instantaneously galvanized the civil rights skirmishes of the early 60’s into a full-fledged social movement. As for the Lady in the Red Dress—her image is already being leveraged in incredibly powerful ways. My favorite example is a series of posters that went up in Istanbul hours after the event—she is Photo-shopped as being very large compared to the riot policeman. The caption reads, “When you do this we just get bigger.” That is cool—and powerful.
Back to leadership: the prescription is that leaders can manage fear with clear values—that create inspiration. OK I admit, that sounds a little woo woo even for me. But guess what, inspiration—like fear—can be managed.
British author Somerset Maugham (my favorite of his books is The Razors Edge—yep Bill Murray was in the movie…) was asked if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. He replied, “I write only when inspiration strikes, fortunately it strikes every morning at nine sharp.”
I love it. Maugham is telling us that we have control over all aspects of our mind if we build the discipline and the physical practices that allow us succeed.
So here’s the deal:
- Fear is operating in your organization right now in hundreds of obvious and not-so-obvious ways.
- Fear attacks reason and it feeds resistance.
- Fear creates prejudice and “us versus them” scenarios.
- Fear freezes people.
- Leadership must manage fear.
- Inspiration and values help people move past their fears.
- Inspiration is a resource that you can control, with practice and disciple.
So how am I going to deal with my colleague’s fear of snakes? I suggest she memorize Frank Herbert’s “litany” about fear.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.*
Repeat as needed while working in the garden this summer. Or, move to Hawaii—no snakes there at all.