Leadership for Timid Souls

Thoughts from the Front Line

Follow the Leader.

In my last blog I described a visceral dream I had 25 years ago, in which I had difficulty taking ownership of a position. An intimidating person sat in my office chair, and the more I yelled at him, the more intransigent he became.

Currently, I am seated in a chair that is not very comfy. It won’t be mine forever, but it’ll be mine for the time being. My Linked In feed is filled with successful, organized innovators who are leading the corporate world to new heights. These esteemed folk use gobbledegook phrases like Thought Leader, Competitive Intelligence, Strategic Foresight, Posture Assessment (Huh? Sounds like something a chiropractor would do). These words and phrases create a foreign language that I don’t speak.

Today, I want to speak to you in my own.

A few years ago, I read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (Crown, 2012). It helped me recognize how introverted I really am, but this isn’t about introversion. There are times in our lives when we are faced with personal challenges that aren’t challenges for others. We’re all different. To compare yourself to those who accomplish via natural ability what you struggle to do, is paralyzing. Extroverts deal with this, too, even if it presents itself differently. It’s human.

Or someone might read to the end and say, “Oh, it’s simple. You have anxiety. Don’t you know that yet?”

I may cop to having anticipatory anxiety. It’s the worry that makes me hyper-vigilant around events, but I resist labels. Have we forgotten that we can be anxious at times simply because what we face is difficult? Maybe it’s my age, but I feel like we slap labels on ourselves way too quickly, and we use them as an excuse. And I suppose that’s what this blog is about.

To sit high in your chair, don’t make excuses.

Excuse # 1

You knew when you accepted the job it would be really hard. So? Quit.

Yes, you could quit. People quit every day, especially when they’re as unqualified as you are.

It’s a crucial time in the organization, though. Finding someone to replace you right now wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be damaging. Demoralizing, even. Irritating to those who depend on you.

But that’s not your problem, right?

Nope, not your problem.

But in the beginning, you said you wanted to leave the place better than you found it. Remember? Was that just something you say before the hard stuff begins? Do you still feel that now? Can you live with the knowledge that leaving right now has the potential to make everything worse?

I didn’t think so.

Excuse #2

Okay, so you’re not going to quit. But who cares about growing as a person? Overrated. Spend the time longing and dreaming for the day when it’s all over. You much prefer not growing.

Twelve months are behind you. You’ve got another 12 months in this position. And then another two years to support your replacement. Terrifying! When you dwell on that, your stomach lurches.

That’s three more years of responsibility for decisions. For event management, and fundraising, and strategic planning.

My God! How are you going to make it through until then? There’s no time for yourself. By the end of it, you’ll be three years older, and no closer to your personal goals.

Seems like it paralyzes you to think about the process too much. Your heart’s racing. You’re panicked and jittery.

Stop. Take a breath.

One Day at a Time is an axiom for good reason. One uncomfortable task at a time?

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Can you discipline yourself to be organized? Can you break each day down into tasks, and only think about that one task at a time? Can you take breaks from the constant what-if? litany in your brain?

Plan ahead, but don’t stare down the road until you’re overwhelmed.

Excuse #3

Okay, one step at a time, not the whole journey. But they need someone better than you. You don’t have the experience. And your mistakes! You’ve messed up, big time.

When someone asked you how the position was going the other week, you made the mistake of telling her how awful it was. “Hardest thing I’ve ever experienced so far in my life, and I can’t wait until it’s over,” you said. Her face changed, remember? She shut up and walked away. She was impressed and happy for you, until your vehemence shut down the whole conversation.

Making mistakes isn’t the problem. Wearing your unwillingness and distaste for the position on your sleeve is the problem. It engenders discomfort in the people who surround you.

Yes, but what if it really is the worst thing you’ve experienced? Panic attacks every day, and sleeplessness every night? Shouldn’t you tell people that you feel unqualified?

Only your counselor.

How you feel about yourself is no one else’s business. Leadership is not about wearing a mask to fool other people into thinking you’re confident. It’s about placing your faith in what you think is ultimately true, and acting on it.

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, it says, “For the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel has said this, ‘In returning [to Me] and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and confident trust is your strength.’ But you were not willing…”

Lots of leadership articles highlight the importance of being an inspiration to others, but you know that’s just the cream in your coffee.

For you, leadership is about learning how to focus on your priorities, not your feelings. Your priority is not perfection. It’s to do as good a job as you are able, and to handle adversity well.

Do you remember that wise editor, who recently said to you, “it doesn’t pay to be too humble about your own work”? He was referring to selling books in the marketplace, but it’s applicable to almost everything in your life.

Why do you underestimate yourself, and overestimate everyone else? I think you should come to the table with the quiet and confident notion that you belong there, along with everyone else.

And just one more quote, because I can’t resist. C.S. Lewis, from his book Mere Christianity:

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

Excuse #4

What if people don’t like your decisions? Can you withstand their disapproval? What if they don’t like you anymore? How can you handle disparate personalities with tact and grace and diplomacy, when what you really what to do is go home, eat chocolate cake, and watch Back to the Future?

Other than accepting the responsibility in the first place, this is probably the hardest part. You’re beginning to realize that leadership is servanthood. And it’s pastoral, even though you never envisioned yourself as a pastor.

Sometimes people don’t like each other, and they find it hard to work together. You have to be the buffer between them, and you have to do it truthfully, with integrity, and humility. You can’t lie your way to respect.

Also, you can’t be a leader if you’re afraid to make decisions that people don’t like. When you ask for ideas and several are offered, it’s hard for you to choose one and implement it, not because you have difficulty figuring out which is the right one, but because you fear people’s reaction.

Your intuition is better than you think. But even if you learn to trust it more, you don’t want to lose that discomfiting, heightened sense of importance in the moment that makes you really sit up and pay attention. There’s no shortcut around the discomfort. You can only go through it.

None of these excuses have succeeded in you.

You haven’t perfected the solutions, either. But you’re doing it. You’ve wanted to slouch and slide under the table, and slink away unnoticed, but you haven’t yet. And you won’t. Do you know how I know? Because deep inside, you really are a leader, and you’ll spend the rest of your life learning how to do it better.

© Copyright 2024 All Rights Reserved Rhonda Herrington Bulmer