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Friday, March 31, 2023

Leading with Character: Facing Fear

My experience at the lake made me realize that facing fear of the unseen has been a constant feature of my personal leadership journey.

As a child, I was afraid of the dark. I bet some of you can relate to that! It’s not a good feeling to involuntarily worry about something you can’t even see or feel. On top of being irrationally afraid, you feel self-conscious because others seem unperturbed. You ask yourself, “What’s wrong with me?”

Irrational Fears

Gradually, my fear of the dark wore off as I grew up and got used to being home alone at night. But I still struggled with a related fear: claustrophobia. That’s a far worse condition that gets in the way of everyday life, like riding elevators or performing certain military duties such as firefighting school where you’re training in artificial, smoke induced, zero-visibility conditions. Irrational fears hold you back from becoming all you can be.

Swimming Toward the Light

My husband and I recently returned from our vacation on a beautiful lake in Maine, where we spend a couple of enchanting weeks each summer. Lake McWain is really deep, and although it looks clear, the sediment reduces visibility considerably; you definitely can’t see the bottom. I love to swim, and the camp we stay at has a nice float anchored about 35 yards off the beach – just the right distance for a refreshing out and back swim. About 20 round-trips would make a mile – the distance I’ve been accustomed to swimming almost every day for most of my life. But I wouldn’t do it; I was afraid to put my face in that dark water. I had tried a few times over the years, but the water got deeper and darker the further away from shore I swam. I would feel a welling up of panic and turn back. It galled me to let my irrational fear get the best of me!

This year, I resolved to overcome my fear of the dark water. Heck, I’ve encouraged others to demonstrate the courage to take risks or try something new, and to understand that a little bit of fear and apprehension is normal when reaching high. But I wasn’t following my own advice. It was time to face my nemesis.

Leading with Character: Facing Fear Homeland Security Today
Sandra L Stosz

So, I pretended I was at the pool. I pulled on a swim cap, secured my goggles, and waded into the lake – my eyes on that swim float, not the water. I took a deep breath, dove in, and swam as fast as I could without looking down. Soon, I glimpsed the shimmer of the aluminum ladder on the swim float. That little bit of light powered me through the final couple of yards and I eagerly grabbed the rungs. I made it! From thence forward, I swam every day, growing more accustomed to the water, and less afraid of the darkness.

Fear of the Unseen

My experience at the lake made me realize that facing fear of the unseen has been a constant feature of my personal leadership journey. It’s human nature to be afraid of the unseen, even the small things, and that can hold us back from achieving our goals. We exist in a world where the future is the unseen, and we have to have faith and take risks to live the lives we want to live and to achieve the goals we set – to become the leaders of character we’re meant to be.

Finding Opportunities

The bell tolls for most of us on Labor Day, when we’re summoned back to work and/or school. With greatly reduced COVID restrictions, much will be expected of us this season. Many will have to face the fear of returning to the office, jumping into a new position at work, putting forward an innovative idea, taking a measured risk, and much more. Yet there will be opportunities to lean in, face those fears, and overcome them! In doing so, we’ll generate power by uniting and strengthening our teams and our organizations.

Create Space to Grow

Facing your fears head-on and overcoming them creates space for you to learn, grow, innovate, achieve, and much more. And we all need more of that kind of space, right? Here’s a formula, derived from my swimming analogy, that I’ve used to banish fear and create space:

  • Step up to the fear you know you need to face and swim toward it;
  • Don’t look down and don’t turn around; and
  • Look to the light to guide and motivate you.

Look in the mirror. Is there an irrational fear – big or small – that you need to face to become a better leader? Do you have the courage to help your employees face their fears to create space so they can become the best they can be?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: https://sandrastosz.com/book/breaking-ice-and-breaking-glass/

Sandra L. Stosz
Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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