Fear is a basic animal instinct experienced by all. It is how we deal with it that decides our success. The antidote to fear, and how courage is developed, is moving forward regardless. Unfortunately, from earliest childhood girls are cautioned about taking risks while boys are encouraged to court danger and seek new experiences. It is a socialization pattern women need to overcome to reach their true potential. Only by ignoring fear and taking action, will women find leadership courage.
Recently I sat with a talented, highly educated, and charismatic young woman protégé. Outwardly she appeared to have everything going for her, and yet, she admitted feeling tremendous self-doubt. The voice in her head which demands perfect performance pronounces her inadequate and causes her to experience profound self-disapproval. The terrifying fear that she will fail and be humiliated prevents her from seizing opportunities.
We discussed this at length, and I explained that she is not alone; it is a common problem for women. From the time we are children boys are encouraged to tackle challenging activities. They are encouraged to climb trees, catch snakes and venture out alone, while girls are advised to be cautious, ladylike and stay close to home. Boys face fear, learn courage and gain confidence. Meanwhile it is fear itself that grows ever larger, ever more endemic with girls. They not only fear spiders, snakes and other creepy things, they fear taking any action at all and become instead immobilized. It affects their self-esteem and their success.
To overcome this conditioning, women need to begin by recognizing that everyone is scared. Even the big tough Western movie hero John Wayne (the Duke), once famously said, "Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyways". The Duke didn't cower in a corner at home because he was afraid. He courageously faced his adversaries, both in gunfights and in life and rode off into the sunset.
Leaders feel fear as well. Consider Jack Welch, well-known former CEO of General Electric said, "When you are running an institution like this you are always scared at first. You're afraid you'll break it. People don't think of leaders this way but it's true. Everyone who's running something goes home at night and wrestles with the same fear. Am I going to be the one who blows this place up?"
Being frightened didn't stop Welch from focusing on changing GE's business model. In fact, he likely used fear to his advantage. Fear has the amazing ability to provide focus and quiet distractions. I learned to harness its power at a young age while singing in music festivals. I found that when relaxed I didn't perform as well as when I had nervous butterflies fluttering in my stomach. Fear unleashed abilities I didn't know I possessed which served me well on stage. Be reassured that when you feel fear and take action your chances of good results are increased.
Top line turnaround expert Alice Wheaton says that successful people are not more confident than the average person; they are just more willing to live with the discomfort of fear. Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat, activist and First Lady of the United States expressed a similar sentiment by saying, "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. You must do the thing that you think you cannot do".
Facing something that seems formidable, and rising above it, readies you for the next challenge. When you build on your success -- small successes can become big successes. Once you have acknowledged that yes, you are scared, yet going to take action, it isn't necessary to take drastic action. Rather than signing up to run the New York City Marathon follow the baby steps model and start by completing a 10K run. A full marathon is not nearly as daunting if you have already done a half marathon...which isn't so hard if you have already done a 10K. You gain confidence by taking each step.
Such was the ideology of the plan we devised for my protégé. It was gratifying to see her depart motivated and ready to spring forward to address the world, in spite of the anxiety and stress that accompanies fear. I can hardly wait to see the great things she will accomplish and the fun she will have trying.
Both boys and girls equally have built-in fears and both can become equally courageous. All it takes is action. Ideally, parents of future generations will encourage children of any gender to, continue in the face of uncertainty and find the bravery to experience the unknown.
For those women already socialized for a lifetime to be cautious and careful, don't despair, it is never too late. Take inspiration from the admissions of fear shared by those who appear the most confident. If they can face their fears and take action, you can too. Baby steps. Start incrementally, build on each success, and you will engender confidence as you go. Leadership courage is yours for the taking -- all it takes is ignoring fear and saddling up. Enjoy the ride!