The Surprising Thing About Fear…

One of the things I have continued to do throughout my leadership journey is reach out to those who are further down the path than I am. Ten years ago as I was facing a crossroads in my career, I drove 420 miles roundtrip to have a cup of coffee with former Allen ISD Superintendent, Dr. Jenny Preston. That one conversation literally launched me in the superintendency 60 days later. When I started writing, I set a goal to cold-call 10 authors to learn about how to make that dream a reality and my first call was to Dr. Joe Sanfelippo who was doing the very thing I wanted to do (leading as a stellar superintendent and writing and speaking – check out Joe’s Hacking Leadership and #1minwalk2work). After I released my book and realized all of my speaking engagements would be virtual due to the pandemic I called on The Innovator’s Mindset author, George Couros to ask for his best tips on sharing his message virtually, because he was killing it in that arena (he now has an online course devoted to that subject and it’s amazing).

This past week, I continued that trend and reached out to Jimmy Casas – one of the most successful DBC authors of all time. After being named Principal of the Year in his state and runner-up for National Principal of the Year, he released his first book, Culturize, which in the first two years sold 100,000 copies and hit the 200,000 mark in year 4. Wow! He was super gracious with his time and advice and one of the things he shared was that he writes and speaks in reverse. Many people write a book and then have the privilege of sharing it with audiences. He, in turn, shared his message with audiences for years and then wrote his first book – similar to the story of “the” DBC guru + New York Times Bestselling author, Dave Burgess himself. But even eight books in, Jimmy said he still does the same thing now – creating content and working in new material at each of his events – not only to keep the message fresh, but to continue to find what resonates with the educators and leaders he works with. I absolutely LOVED writing Thrive Through The Five, but as I’ve continued to share my message around the country, I too have found that there are a couple of things I wish I would have said in the book. One is this surprising thing about fear…

Fear Does Not Mean That You’re Not Ready.

If there is one fallacy of thought I’ve had as a leader, it is this: that if I’m feeling fearful or doubtful or have angst about a certain step in my life, then it must mean that I am not ready to take that step. So I wait (or worse, step back) and assume that the fear will pass which will be the green light to move forward. What I’ve learned is that fear doesn’t always mean that you’re not ready. As I have approached major career crossroads, my doubts littered with fear are endless… What if I’m not ready? What if I don’t like this role? What if this role leads to zero balance in my life? If we’re being honest, there’s also an element of What if they find out I’m not everything they think I am? (Imposter syndrome anyone?) The crazy thing is that these fears weren’t just with me the very first time I moved into leadership as an Assistant Principal. These thoughts hang out in the back of my mind and come to life during every single transition I make and every project I tackle.

As you can imagine, as I contemplated the move to the superintendency, those thoughts were on hyperdrive… (what if I don’t know everything I need to know? what if my family is not happy in this new place? what if I don’t like the job? what if I can’t balance being a mom and a superintendent?). And in those moments, this is what happens -> our fear leads to doubt; our doubt leads to inaction and that inaction leads to death. We doubt and don’t act and doubt and don’t act and doubt and don’t act until our greatest hopes and dreams might as well be dead. That is fear and we cannot let it take hold in our lives.

But here’s the crazy part… None of those feelings changed. None of those fears subsided between the time I was contemplating a move into the superintendency to the time when I was serving as an effective superintendent. The only thing that took me from the fear-filled place that I was in to the place where I wanted to be was that I actually took the step and did it. What I’ve realized is that sometimes, the fear just doesn’t go away. Therefore, the goal isn’t to eradicate fear; the goal is to lead through it anyway.

So if fear doesn’t always mean that you’re not ready, how do you know? Here are some pieces of evidence to look for to help guide your own journey:

  1. The people who you look up to and trust the most encourage you to take the step. When people you respect continue to pour into you and encourage you to take that next step, you know you’re on the right track. When you’re contemplating how best to move forward, reach out to those you respect who will share honest feedback with you.
  2. Your record of success indicates that you will be successful. You know you’re ready when you’ve done the work. You’ve been battle-tested and you continue to come out on top. You have the skills and the savviness necessary to be successful in the new role.
  3. You are excited to take the next step. You not only think that you will love this new role, you are already thinking about how you would lead in this new role. When I started to recognize, analyze and find viable solutions to the challenges not just facing me but those in the roles ahead of me, I knew it was time. It’s time to take the next step when your vision is larger and farther than the role in which you’re currently serving.
  4. You are surrounded by people who would follow you. The thing about leadership is that it’s not just about what you do; it’s about how you do it. And that’s either in a way that brings people along and builds their capacity or in a way that pushes others away (or worse, down). Gandhi once said that “a sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have but how many leaders you create.”

But most of all, remember that fear has its place. It can be a protector in the face of danger or a warning sign for when things are going off course. But fear can also paralyze us in a way that keeps us from realizing our full potential; that keeps us from fulfilling our dreams. What I’ve learned about fear is that when we’re bold, when we choose action in the midst of fear, when we lead anyway – that courage is the birth of greatness.

Probably my favorite chapter in the entire book of Thrive Through the Five is the chapter on acting in the midst of fear. And I shared several truths that I think will help break the chains of paralysis that fear creates for a lot of people. But one thing I didn’t include then that I share frequently now is that fear does not always mean that you’re not ready. So if you are one of the normal people like me who struggles with fear and doubt – join the club. And just take that next best step anyway!

Sketchnote by Amelia Buchanan

Thrive Through the Five: Practical Truths to Powerfully Lead through Challenging Times is an award-winning book that debuted as the #7 Best Education Book of All-Time by BookAuthority. It recently won 4 awards in the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Awards, including FINALIST for the Montaigne Medal for the most thought-provoking book and the WINNER of the Best Reference Book.