“I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.”
~ Terry (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront
Fear is a natural part of life. It’s a powerful motivator for leaders and entrepreneurs. Each of us chooses to believe that fear is either an ally or something to avoid or deny. Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the willingness to move forward in the face of fear. Yet, in spite of its power, fear gets buried beneath life’s distracting and numbing activities.
Every parent fears the loss of a child. Many fear their own death, especially those who deny this fear. High-performers in business who are under forty say that business/career/financial failure is one of their greatest fears. Those over forty say they fear not fulfilling their purpose/leaving a legacy/making a meaningful contribution to the world. Both of these fear sets are two sides of the same coin, a fear of “not having what it takes, of not being enough.”
Your fears influence the way you think, feel and act. In leadership, the more you cultivate your relationship with fear the more grounded and aligned you are with your values. If you remain connected to your fear you increase your authenticity and decrease your decision-making blind spots.
Transitioning Out of a Small Pond
In January of 1991 I moved from Washington, DC to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Within four months I felt like I had personally connected with every influential person in town. It would take years, if ever, to have this feeling in DC, New York or Philadelphia. I loved how “seen” and accepted I felt in this small town. My profile as the CEO of a national, publicly-traded company added to what grew into a seductive visibility.
Ten years later, when I contemplated leaving the CEO life and becoming a facilitator and executive coach, I panicked. I knew I would miss the identity and status inherent in my role. I ran head-long into a fear I didn’t know I had, a fear of being ordinary.
A few months after I made my career change my reservations persisted. It didn’t help when someone would ask me what team I coached. I’d politely explain I wasn’t that kind of coach; I was working at the top levels of commerce thank you very much. Then I would try to find something else to talk about. This was a far cry from the days when the local store clerk would ask, “Did I see you on the news last night?” It wasn’t until I noticed how attached I was to my identity as a CEO and changed my belief about who I really was, that my fear gave way to gratitude and joy.
Our Deepest Yearning
Much of our teens and early twenties are spent crafting our identity. It’s during this stage of development that we establish who we are apart from our family. In these years, we define ourselves by our accomplishments, successes and image. Behind our persona are fear and vulnerability and a yearning to be seen as unique and special. A stretch of successful years often does little for our maturity and helps us temporarily forget our yearning to be seen as special. By mid-life this hunger surfaces again.
Before you give up your extraordinary life and move to a cave or commune, there is a healthy way to pursue an extraordinary life. It begins with believing you are extraordinary—extraordinary not because of your title, address or personality but because of your essence. You are extraordinary because you know your true nature well enough to be amazed and inspired by it.
If you don’t believe you’re extraordinary, it shows. Your shadow will inflate you in order to be noticed. It will tell you that you have not done enough and will be forgotten. It will take you down a path that leads you away from fulfillment and aliveness.
Leading from Fulfillment
As part of the burden of leadership, it’s easy to confuse your role with your identify when you’re successful and out-rank most, if not all, of the people in your company. Thank God for strong spouses and YPO forums to keep you humble. It’s easy to forget that you don’t have to do anything in order to be extraordinary.
Outside of leadership, if you are driven by a fear of being ordinary you can spend a lot of time worrying about or working on your image or legacy and miss out on being present to your life.
If you believe you are inherently special, you’ll be comfortable being ordinary. You won’t feel offended if someone gets a little more than you do or takes the parking spot you were coveting. These things become less important the more self-accepting you become. You will not fear selling the business or retiring.
The Gift in the Ordinary
With hindsight, my fear of being ordinary was running high when all my business clothes had my name stitched in them. When I downsized from one special car (BMW 740il) to another (Prius), traveled only to exclusive resorts, sat only in the best seats, and ate most of my meals in places not open to the public I’d get grumpy or a bit indignant if I was ever ignored. When I’m conscious, I’m aware of when this fear arises.
Connection to friends and loved-ones, experiencing nature in any moment, and realizing the gift of our senses throughout the day is pretty ordinary stuff. To bless another person with your complete presence or a compassionate glance or word are pretty ordinary ways to create your legacy.
To be ordinary is to be vulnerable. It means risking the judgment of another in order to be grounded, confident and fulfilled, no matter what. Yet isn’t it an extraordinary person who risks the judgment of others?