Barbara was coming up on a milestone birthday and decided she wanted to do something adventurous and out of the norm to celebrate the occasion. So why not go skydiving? That certainly fits the bill. Her daughter Courtney, a manager on my team, went along and the two had a fantastic experience.
I knew from previous conversations with Courtney that she was unafraid of jumping out of a perfectly fine airplane. She doesn’t have much of a sense of fear. So when I had the chance recently to speak to Barbara, I was curious to learn her perspective. I asked her if she was afraid or nervous leading up to her skydiving adventure. Barbara said the only time she started to feel anxious was when she thought about actually jumping from the plane. Then she added what I thought was a profound insight: “So instead of focusing on the two seconds of fear of leaving the plane, I chose to focus on how fantastic it would feel to fly through the air for seven minutes.”
Thinking about Barbara’s insights has caused me to draw a few interesting parallels to leading in challenging or fearful circumstances.
1. Your focus determines your reality—Barbara intentionally kept her focus on the seven minutes of fun and joy she would experience as she floated to earth under a safe parachute rather than the fear and panic that arose inside of her when thinking about jumping from the airplane. The principle is the same for leaders facing situations that conjure up feelings of fear. We can choose where to place our focus: on what causes us fear or on what the benefits will be if we act with courage. When facing challenging situations, focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t. Focusing on what you can’t control only leads to worry, anxiety, and fear, whereas focusing on what you can control makes you feel empowered and purposeful.
2. Acknowledge your fear but don’t let it rule you—Fear is a normal response. Sometimes it’s a helpful warning sign that assists us in making decisions to protect ourselves. Many times, however, we experience fear in anticipation of a particular situation or outcome and it causes us to stop dead in our tracks before we even get started. If Barbara had let the fear of jumping from the plane hold her back, she never would have experienced the thrill of skydiving. The next time you feel fear rearing its ugly head, step back and try to view it dispassionately. Step outside of yourself and acknowledge what you’re feeling but also look at it logically. Understand what needs to be learned from your fear but don’t give it more credit than what is due. Be prudent, be smart, think things through…but don’t let fear rule your life.
3. Approach challenges with openness and positivity—There are many factors that shape how we typically respond to challenges in life. Some of these factors are largely out of our control: personality, temperament, and early childhood experiences, just to name a few. However, there is one factor completely under our control: our attitude. We can choose what kind of attitude we have in the face of challenges. We can choose to be fearful and resistant, or we can choose to be open and positive. Approaching challenges with openness and positivity opens the door to learning and growth, both essential characteristics of successful leaders.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a burning desire to jump out of an airplane and parachute back to earth. However, after talking with Barbara, I have a better picture of how I could get beyond my fear of skydiving if that was ever a challenge I wanted to tackle. But there are plenty of other challenges I face as a leader and I’ll be relying on these three principles to help me approach them in a more positive, empowering, and healthy way.
Do these principles ring true to you? Feel free to leave a comment and share your perspective.