True story… A few days ago (I must still be thinking about the last week’s article on Fear of Change), I had a rather strange experience. I was getting ready for a speaking engagement. It was with an audience larger than I usually speak in front of, with content I had not delivered before. I was to meet the conference organizers at 7:30 am for an 8:30am start. Next thing I know, it is 8:30am and I am just waking up. That was unlike me. I am a morning person; I can get up at 5:00am without an alarm bell. First, I can’t find the shoes I am supposed to wear with my navy blue suit. Next, I can’t find my car keys. When I find my car keys, my car is not there in the garage. I can feel my heart about to jump out of my chest. With panic and my heart thumping hard, I wake up now fully, and it’s 5:00am in the morning. Does this ever happen to you? It’s basic fear of failure. And, for us to be more authentic leaders, we need to embrace our inner loser. Here is why.
Fear of Failure – Inner Loser
We all have an inner loser. It lurks just underneath telling us we are phony when we smile brightly and make small talk at networking events. At least mine does that. It reminds us of our greatest fears – of not being enough, of failing when the spotlight is on us. The more I try to suppress it, the larger it becomes.
Our fear of failure is completely normal and served our ancestors well. If our cavemen ancestors failed to notice the lion stalking, they faced some dire consequences. We have thus evolved to put ourselves in high alert when we detect threats. The problem is that our brains have not evolved far enough to distinguish between physical threats and threats to our self-esteem. This state of threat inhibits our performance, creativity, productivity, empathy, and ability to collaborate with others.
Fear of Failure Undermines Authentic Leadership
The problem with failure is that we take our failures very personally. You hear the muffled voice of the inner critic say, “Gee… if I fail at this, it means that I must not be good enough, and if I am not good enough then no one will love me.” It comes from our basic survival mechanism as mammals where in order to survive, we needed to be loved and taken care of by others. We all have a secret suspicion that we are really losers and no one will love us if we let them see our inner loser.
To Be An Authentic Leader, We must Embrace our Inner Loser
This fear keeps us in “performance mode”. It prevents us from letting our guard down with others. The most self-assured and authentic leaders are not afraid to be vulnerable, to show their flaws, to share their failures. That’s because they are already comfortable with their inner loser and know that their inner loser is part of the shared human experience, and in no way undermines their fundamental self-worth.
Embracing Your Inner Loser
A critical step to be more authentic in our leadership is to get comfortable with not being perfect. Here is an exercise I have tried that helps me embrace my inner loser. Get yourself a piece of paper and write down:
“I know that I am not perfect because (list a previous failure or “fatal flaw”), but I know I am okay anyway because (list some things that are strengths, accomplishments etc.)”
This exercise can be very useful and effective for giving ourselves a break. We may not be perfect but we can still be OK. It takes the sting out of failure because we don’t attach failure to our basic worthiness. Writing it down was hard for me. Reading it out loud several times helped. Then saying it in front of someone else is the real challenge, but it gets easier with time.
Here are some examples of sentences I wrote for myself:
“That was not the perfect coaching session as we didn’t accomplish our original objectives, but I am still okay because the client had a couple of big aha moments.”
“I am not the best presenter because I didn’t have the best English accent, but I am still okay because I connected with the audience – people came up to me to tell me how inspired they were by what I shared.”
Our Authenticity is the Source of Our Power
As we let go of the need to be perfect every time, we have less anxiety; we take more risks, and begin to see challenges as learning opportunities vs. proving opportunities. We can also appreciate the complimentary skill sets of others while accepting their flaws. As we get more comfortable in our own skin, we can help others be more comfortable in theirs.
I used to think accepting my flaws was sort of like giving up any hope of growing and becoming better. This could be a serious career-limiting move especially if you are in a leadership position!
But, this is what I have discovered. There is a huge gap between being perfect and being successful. For us high achievers, embracing our flaws allows us to detach “being perfect” from “being worthy”, and that is when we are able to be powerful enough to be ourselves.
The key to our power is to accept our imperfections as part of the purpose we are suited for. I have found in my executive coaching work that our biggest flaws can also be our biggest strengths and vice versa. Here is a list of some of the “imperfections” I have carried around like burdens thinking that I needed to somehow change myself in order to be a good leader and executive. I am an introvert who grew up in a family of other introverts but, living in a cultural world that celebrates extroverts. I prefer connecting deeply with a few people rather than meeting 300 people at business events. I prefer to listen rather than talk. Unlike the classic image of many CEO’s and senior executives, I don’t particularly enjoy the spotlight. I’d rather let someone else have it. I shy away from exerting power. I had an “aha moment” when I realized that these same “flaws” make me a great executive coach for others and exercising these same “flaws” brings me tremendous joy in the work that I do. Our flaws are part of our power because they are part of our essence. Being in our essence is the most fulfilling way of being in our power.
As I work with my executive coaching clients, I help them to see and accept who they are authentically. From this place of acceptance, our goal is not to change who they are, but for them to choose who they are. Instead of constantly conforming to some external standard of perfection, the work that is most empowering for them is to expand their self-awareness of who they are, why and how they want to lead, and the unique contributions they are suited to make in their organizations. Here is why this works. They have much greater ownership of a higher vision of themselves they create. They are willing to stick with goals that help them be the kind of leader they already are, and are inspired to be.
They reframe their definition of success by creating an authentic leadership brand. Their brand integrates their personal sense of purpose, strengths, and core values. They learn to ease their desire to “be perfect” based on some kind of external standard in favor of “being powerful” in an authentic way. They learn new leadership practices that help them act on the leadership brand they have created. As we follow the “purpose we are suited for”, our work starts to feel like our calling. We unleash higher levels of engagement, results, and well-being. As we accept and celebrate our own essence, we are able to see and celebrate that of others around us. The space between “being perfect” and “being powerful” is the journey of transformational leadership. I welcome you to join me in this journey.
Once we accept ourselves with our flaws, it doesn’t make us complacent. It actually helps us move forward with greater confidence. Ironically, accepting ourselves just as we are is the greatest catalyst to our own growth. Embracing our inner loser unleashes our inner superhero – because we are less afraid to just be ourselves. Stepping into our authenticity is stepping into our real power. Getting comfortable with our flaws is part of the journey of transformational leadership.
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