Why fear makes you a better leader

October 28, 2014, 11:00 AM UTC
Mary Barra
pickup Armin Harris
Photograph by Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Recently, we’ve seen examples of women leaders facing tremendous challenges and developing even greater leadership skills as a result—think GM CEO Mary Barra, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, IMF head Christine Lagarde, etc. These women lead companies, countries, and global financial markets through unprecedented historical events. While impressively composed and decisive on the outside, I imagine there were many points at which they felt outside their comfort zone — beyond their learning zone; and on terror’s edge, leading into unchartered territories.

There’s a lot of truth, however, when they say, ‘what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.’ Adversity can make us stronger people and better leaders. In fact, the Center for Creative Leadership reports that over 66% of leadership capabilities are forged through challenges. While you and I may never face multi-billion global challenges like the leaders of GM(GM) Chrysler or the Fed, we do face our own personal and professional challenges from which we can learn and forge new leadership skills.

In my own case, I recently experienced something that took me beyond my terror’s edge. I went through a two-year odyssey with infertility that shook me to my core, rocked my worldview, and disrupted every aspect of my life personally and professionally. I couldn’t just work my way through this challenge; I had to learn new things, develop new skills, and take huge risks. It was both the worst and best experience of my life, and I can honestly say that I am a wiser person and better leader after this incredible challenge. (Click here to watch my TedX talk on Navigating Infertility).

In my work with leaders, I often use the image of a donut to help describe the way we live and learn. Life inside the donut hole represents our comfort zone. That’s where life is safe, familiar, comfortable, and potentially a little boring. Conversely, life on the donut reflects our learning zone. This is where we grow, stretch and experiment. This is where we feel alive, inspired and awake. This is where most leaders live, constantly learning, growing and developing. Now, life on the edge of the donut is the outer edge of our learning zone. This is terror’s edge, and most people—even good leaders—never get past it.

For years, I taught leaders around the globe to avoid terror’s edge. I went so far as to say that people who are self-aware can control their lives so that they stay in the learning zone. And up until recently, I had done that myself. I had crafted a pretty amazing life and a pretty wonderful career in my learning zone, but then my battle with infertility pushed me beyond my terror’s edge. I am not comparing my challenge with that of navigating GM through the largest automotive recall in history, but those female leaders probably never imagined they would face the extraordinary challenges they did. But face them they did. Pushing past terror’s edge is where tremendous inspiration, growth and extraordinary leadership can emerge.

How do you come out stronger? In a word, grit. Psychologists have long maintained that grit—courage and firmness in the face of hardship—is the single biggest factor to overcoming obstacles, setbacks, challenges and adversity. People with grit maintain their stamina, determination and motivation. When you are outside your comfort and learning zones and beyond terror’s edge, grit is the key to succeeding, leading, or managing through adversity. It’s how I got through my challenge and I imagine that Mary Barra, Janet Yellen, and their cohorts have it in spades.

Here are five strategies to develop your grit:

  1. Be agile. My motto is, “Clear on the outcome, flexible on their approach.” Be flexible and agile about how you get to your goal. The best leaders live what thought leader Chris Argyris called “double loop learning”—they are able to assess situations, adapt their strategy, and adjust actions to consistently target their outcomes. Things rarely work out the way we plan. Agility will see you through the many stumbles and obstacles that will crop up.
  1. Know your why.Victor Frankl said it best in Man’s Search for Meaning: When the why becomes clear, the how becomes easy. Get clarity on the why behind your dream or your challenge. Why are you doing this? When you know the why, you can find the way.
  1. Get emotional.That’s right. You read that correctly. Once you havee-motion, you have motion. The more emotionally associated you are to your dream or to the challenge, the more you can harness that energy for good. (And it’s key to have the emotions before they have you!)
  1. Build the best team.It’s the power of peers. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, energize you, want you to be successful, and who will share the challenge. All too often people will shoot down your dreams or tell you why you cannot rise to the challenge so they can justify not pursuing their own. Build a team that can help you reach your goal.
  1. Unplug often.If you are exhausted, overwhelmed, and over-wired all the time, your spirits will sag and your perseverance will suffer. Taking care of yourself and finding quiet time for rest and reflection is key. You need to schedule regular times to step back, recalibrate, and gain perspective to think through your challenge, find fresh perspective, and unclutter your mind.

When we take action in the face of adversity, when we move toward something that scares the living daylights out of us, when we move out of our comfort zone and past our terror’s edge, we can grow and develop in ways we never imagined. While I’ve met very few people who covet living life beyond terror’s edge, there is a richness, a vibrancy, and a new learning that comes from facing a challenge. You may never be faced with something that pushes you past your terror’s edge, but developing grit can lead you through any challenge or adversity.

Camille Preston is a virtual leadership expert, author, speaker, executive coach, and the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership. Download her free ebook, The Rewired Resolution, here.

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