My Son, My Fear, My Friend




Almost every leader’s biggest challenge is unleashing initiative.  If it’s not getting people to initiate and generate, then it’s getting people to initiate work with others.  Parents, bosses, presidents, principals? They’re all trying to light fires and increase people’s capacity to work together and work out problems.

What’s THE biggest obstacle to people initiating, taking on challenges, advancing?  Fear – in one form or another.  Fear of: getting fired, offending someone, being wrong, looking foolish, etc.  The fear is primal, operates beneath the surface.  Let’s uncover it a little. And seek a strategy.

For Jack’s 14th birthday I took him on a rock climb, a 300-foot guided ascent near Lake Tahoe.  I say: I took him.  But he’s the climber, and he loved every minute of it. It was different for me.  As I vice-gripped the ledge at the top of the first 120-foot pitch, I worked to slow my pounding breath of fear and nervousness.  A great writer once said:  “Do I like writing? No, I don’t like writing. I like having written.”  I absolutely loved “having climbed” and being on top – I felt accomplished, safe, relieved, and loved the view we had earned. The climb itself? A mindless blur of emotion and tension that I literally compelled to escape. That’s no way to write or to climb!

A couple days later Jack and I were sitting in a jacuzzi at a local pool.  I gasped as the water seared the cuts from my frantic scamper up that rock face. I speculated out loud that maybe my pain wasn’t “real,” but just a thought-mechanism in the brain, an ancient warning alarm that need not command my attention or action.  I was challenging Jack  with the idea that maybe you can reorient your thinking toward pain or other thoughts or feelings.  He rejected the idea out of hand.  “Pain is real,” he said, “Just like that wall behind you is real.”  “Maybe,” I said, “but what about the fear I had on the rock? Couldn’t I change my orientation towards it?”  I pointed out that there was no rational basis for my intense level of fear.  After all, I was securely cabled in, and our guide, Petch, was careful, licensed, and very experienced.  I insisted it was possible for me to change my perspective . . . my challenge for next time.

A week after that (which was a week ago today), I was driving him to his first day of high school orientation in a new school and a whole new type of school, in a new city and state.  This was his rock to climb.  His fear, his wanting the day to be over, like I wanted to be done with that climb. So, I ask you: What would you have told (or asked) him?  Can one reorient to fear? How?  What could he do?  And what can a boss, parent, coach do when fear is at play in someone they lead (about classes, extra-curriculars, girls; or in our adult worlds: a new assignment, a possible layoff, the economy, big workloads, an imperiled marriage, etc.)? How do you manage the fear?

Here’s the best advice I had:  Notice it. Befriend it. Say hello to it. “It” – the voice, the fearful thought, the fearful child within – name it what you will.  Maybe respect it.  Let it along for the ride.  And climb anyway. . .

To lead with your best self,