On Leadership: Can confronting unexpected fears make you a better leader?
What I learned from crossing a bridge
I was recently quite surprised to confront a fear I didn’t even know I had. While driving across a bridge over the Mississippi River on a trip to Wisconsin, I experienced a panic attack, which is quite unusual for me. Knowing I could not stop in the middle, I talked myself through it, focusing on a point straight ahead, breathing intentionally, and telling myself repeatedly to just keep moving forward. When I got to the other side of the river, I pulled over in a parking lot to recover and thought, “What the heck was that all about?”
Fears and phobias are common, with the National Institute of Mental Health estimating 9.1% of U.S. adults have a specific phobia – an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little to no real danger. I am not afraid of spiders, snakes, bats or crowded spaces, but apparently, I experience gephyrophobia, the scientific name for fear of driving over bridges. The incident was so unexpected — and so ripe for metaphor — that I started asking others about it. I was shocked to learn that numerous people I talked to have had the same experience, even confident drivers. It struck me how little we know about each others’ fears and also how comforting it was to know I was not alone in this reaction.
“We all struggle with stress, anxiety and other difficult emotions,” says a Harvard Business Review article called “Leaders, don’t be afraid to talk about your fears and anxieties.” That article says it can be difficult for leaders to know what to do with feelings of vulnerability, especially because we are supposed to be in control, confidently leading and supporting our teams. However, there is much we can learn from fear, and much we can achieve by sharing our own journeys and acknowledging that our team members may also be experiencing these types of emotions, work-related or in other parts of their lives.
“Fear cannot be escaped or avoided,” says an article from Full Sail Leadership Academy. “It must be overcome. Learning how to identify, confront and triumph over fear in your workplace will empower you to flourish.”
The Harvard Business Review article referenced research that categorized leaders into three categories: Heroes, who focus on the positive and show up as invincible; Technocrats, who move immediately to tactics and data, never showing emotion; and Sharers, who openly acknowledge feelings, positive or negative. In my experience, the corporate world has traditionally reinforced that the Hero or Technocrat personas are the most acceptable, professional and effective forms of leadership, based on the assumption that showing weakness will undermine one’s authority.
But what if sharing real emotion and showing vulnerability is good for the leader and also creates a more effective and positive culture?
The HBR article asserts that sharing emotion is a healthy behavior both physically and mentally – suppressing a negative emotion actually makes us feel worse, which is not helpful when we are trying to lead. Similarly, never showing negative emotion can actually create distance between leaders and team members. If others are under the impression that you as a leader are not struggling, even in times of stress, it sends a message that perhaps there is something wrong with them if they are experiencing difficulties – or that they should certainly not admit their feelings.
Fear can push us forward, and thereby help us advance individually. Sharing these emotions can build trust and security within our organizations. The Full Sail article says that staying in our comfort zones may seem to be providing safety, but that is just an illusion. “Human beings are not designed to live within comfort zones,” says the article, “We flourish in the growth zone.”
Confronting my newly discovered fear of driving over bridges was certainly an experience for reflection and growth, even if it was simultaneously terrifying and puzzling. Not only did I have to look at what I was afraid of, but also explore why. Did the narrow structure of the bridge make me feel trapped? Did the limited sight lines make me feel out of control? Were other stresses in my life exacerbating my general anxiety about driving? I’m still not sure of the exact cause, but looking inwardly at this unexpected reaction forced me to examine a variety of issues, which is always positive. Talking about it with others made me feel better, and – unexpectedly – gave a few of us a shared experience.
Of course, after this happened on the way to Wisconsin, I wondered how the return trip would play out. Sure enough, when I made the crossing back to Iowa over a different bridge a few days later, I had the same symptoms: vertigo, shallow breathing, sweat on my brow. But I was able to push through these feelings again.
I may be afraid when I come to the next big bridge, but I’m not going to change my routes or avoid such crossings. I know that if it happens, I can simply focus, breathe and keep driving. I’ve made it before, and I can do it again. After all, isn’t confronting our fears and overcoming them again and again how we all actually advance?