On days like last Tuesday, when it’s too windy and cold to exercise outside, I fire up my indoor spinning bike. It may be good for my body, pedaling round and round in my home-made gym, but this isn’t exactly my idea of mental stimulation. So to stave off boredom I often turn on the T.V. That particular day it worked wonders. I became riveted by the mass protests erupting in Egypt, Libya, Iran, Yemen, and Bahrain. On Good Morning America, international reporter Christiane Amanpour summed up what had so captivated me about all these outpourings of fervor. She said that people in droves across the Middle East were “shaking off the shackles of fear.”
While my feet flew round and round on the pedals and my hamstrings howled, my mind kept running over that phrase. The power of those words and what I was watching on the screen provoked this question: How could each of us, from individuals to whole organizations, shake off the shackles of our own fears?
Now, to be fair, I do believe that fear is sometimes warranted. In fact, Discovery Health contends that without fear, we wouldn’t last long: “We’d be walking into oncoming traffic, stepping off of rooftops and carelessly handling poisonous snakes … In humans and in all animals, the purpose of fear is to promote survival.” But most of the time, our fear isn’t necessary. We often create fear from our worries about what might be, not what actually is. Out of this unneeded fear, we make decisions that we later regret, and carry with us an amazing amount of preventable stress.
One of my clients, a CEO, was recently gripped by the shackles of fear. I was in the middle of a six-person meeting when he joined us in the conference room. Instantly our friendly, productive conversations came to a halt. He nudged aside the decisions we’d been working toward, launching into a fiery venting session about his board. A few hours later, once his anger had subsided a bit, he and I talked about the situation.
His company board had just railed him for making a profit (huh?!) – apparently not enough to carry the shortcomings of the rest of the ailing organization. As we talked it through, we both realized that the wrath he’d vented in the conference room was fueled by a huge fear: Would he ever do enough to satisfy the board? For that matter, would he ever be enough to satisfy himself?
His job as a leader reminded me of Nataraj, the lord of dance in Hindu mythology. Nataraj dances on top of chaos and turmoil. Her dancing destroys things that are no longer useful and it helps to bring about wellbeing. There is a simple reason that Nataraj can rhumba on top of all that mess and somehow turn it to the world’s advantage. She has already conquered her fears. She has danced with her own demons. Unneeded anxieties no longer grip her. And thus her energies are available to serve benefits that extend well beyond herself.
Inspired by Nataraj, the CEO today keeps notes about her story by his computer. He says it serves as a reminder to face his fears rather than be led by them. The legend of Nataraj moves me as well; maybe she’s hit on at least part of the answer to my question: How could each of us, including our organizations, shake off the shackles of fear? Learning how to dance with our demons is a start.
Like most of us leaders, Nataraj is always on the move: dancing, dancing, dancing. This is not a dance of evasion or blissful ignorance. It’s a direct facing of fears that helps to bring sustainable order to the lives of others. This dance uplifts people and in turn helps them elevate themselves and the people around them. As leaders, isn’t that our job?
Photo by Michele Ahin, licensed under Creative Commons cc-by-sa 2.0