Developing courage to lead

I recently realized that I have a problem with leadership, and it is an emotional one.

I have spent significant time studying leaders, reading about their lives, trying to understand what makes them leaders. Intellectually, I felt like I understood it. But emotionally I realized that I don’t believe in myself as a leader. Just talking about myself as a leader makes my heart race, my palms get a tingling sensation, and get nervous. 

That is what I’ve been working through over the past month. Even though I can recognize leadership in others, I struggle to call myself a leader. This is the case even when in the midst of leading a team. I see myself as someone who can gets things done. I can define a problem, find a path to move forward, and fix it. That’s what I’ve always done and that’s how I am comfortable contributing to teams.

As I look to the future, however, I know that my contribution to teams and society as a whole will be capped if I don’t develop my leadership. So I’ve been wondering, how exactly do I become a leader? Is there a checklist I can go through and come out at the other end as a leader? Do I wait until my manager tells me that I should lead a team (hint: it turns out, that’s not how leadership works)? 

In essence, in order to lead all I really need is: 

  1. A point of view, or vision, of how something should be
  2. Conviction & commitment to pursue that vision
  3. Courage to share it with others and compel them to follow

The only person preventing me from leading is me. Item number one on the list is not a problem, I have plenty of thoughts of how things should be. I can definitely argue a point. The second item may be an issue at times, there are few things I feel enough conviction about pursuing, so I can easily drop things. However, I don’t think that’s a big problem. The third element, however, is where I struggle the most. I am afraid to let others down, afraid of not looking smart, so I stop myself from trying to compel others to follow. Instead, I wait for others to lead the way. 

Addressing this issue is truly an emotional challenge. The prescription seems to be courage, practice, and resilience. 

I need to build up the courage to define a vision and share it while it is still not a done deal. I have to be willing to hear criticism and use that to grow. I need to distance my sense of personal worth from my work so that when others provide feedback on my work I don’t take it personally.

If I don’t do this, I will chicken out of sharing my thoughts until it is too late. I will continue to spend so much time thinking through the problem that the opportunity to lead will pass me by. I will become another one of those that hears their awesome idea from someone else and say: “Argh, I could have said that! That was my idea!” Too little too late. 

To be sure, most of this I already knew intellectually, even before this past month reflecting on it. So, what truly matters is what’s next. What am I going to do about it? 

  • I will carve out time to write down my vision & point on view on things I believe to be important. 
  • I will share this with others before I feel ready to do so. I will not keep a task to “polish X vision doc and share it once final” for weeks at a time. I will form a point of view and share before I have all the answers. By doing that, I will learn. 
  • I will not shy away when I get negative feedback on what I share. Instead, I will use that to learn, iterate, and keep refining my thinking. I will repeat that cycle as many times as necessary. 

By doing this, I hope to build up my courage. I know it will suck at first. As I write this, I feel a tingling sensation in my palms signaling nervousness. I really am afraid to let others down, and I will need to have the courage to risk letting others down in the short term for the long-term rewards of becoming the leader I know I can be. 


A note on self-awareness and the enneagram test

If you’ve heard of the enneagram test, I’m described eerily well as a self-preservation type three. Emotionally, if I’m not continuously achieving or succeeding, I feel like everything will come down crumbling around me. Continuous achievement is to the self-preservation three a requirement to prove that they deserve what they have. Any sort of failure, such as disappointing others, is felt very deeply as a threat to everything accomplished so far. 

I mention this because learning about my enneagram type was an unexpectedly emotional journey. More than once, I teared up as I read the hard truth about the fears that drive me. With that awareness, I can see how the fear of letting others down has been sabotaging my own learning and development as it relates to leadership. If you’re too afraid to look stupid, leading will become far more challenging. 

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