Watch for Fallen Rocks: How working with fear strengthens your leadership practice
The first time I saw it I was on an elementary school field trip. Squeezed in a dark green sticky L-shaped seat next to a kid I didn’t know, I peered out of the glass to my right to read the yellow and black warning: WATCH FOR FALLEN ROCKS. This came at an inconvenient moment as my stomach was already a little sick from the twisty road we were on, a road cut out of the side of a mountain, a road just wide enough for our bus and the lines painted on the pavement. There was no room for fallen rocks, not unless we wanted to swerve off the road and into the James River where we would meet kayakers and also our maker.
Wait. Fallen rocks? If we should watch for rocks that have already fallen, then doesn’t that mean we should also watch for rocks that are falling? If rocks fell here once then they will fall again, right? Why do they even allow people on this road? I held my breath, clenched my jaw, and tapped my feet all the way up the mountain because I had not yet learned that holding one’s body in an anxious state does not actually prevent disasters. (OK, I still have not learned this, but let’s proceed anyway.)
As a CEO who spends much of her time meeting with people (it’s one of the two things my children think I do for a living, that, and type on the computer), it may surprise you to know that sitting around a table discussing topics with other humans is a stressor so intense I’ve had to be intentional about managing it. One time, early in my tenure as CEO, I left a team meeting that I had facilitated, got into my car, and drove with eyes wet from crying as I expelled the tension I had held for almost three hours. Eventually, I pulled over to a nearby church to catch my breath and retrace my steps.
I asked myself a series of small, but significant questions (walk with me while I talk to myself):
What happened? In a group of eleven leaders, I asked questions that made folks uncomfortable. I proposed ideas that threatened the status quo they had all built. I kept silence when they were hoping I’d give answers. Their facial expressions and body language let me know they were not happy. I did a great job that day, but I had not won any friends.
What about that is upsetting? Not the meeting – this kind of thing is par for the course, short-term discomfort in service to long-term progress. It’s how change happens. Not my competence – I did a good job. Not the message delivery - I am not afraid of public speaking, not anxious when I talk to reporters on TV. It wasn't their response - I'm a parent for crying out loud, I can handle when people don't love what I'm saying. So what is it? Is it something about the table? Really?
What about other times you’ve been around a table? A childhood memory came to me: A kitchen table. A difficult conversation, angry words, abusive language, shame. A painful, unpredictable scenario that I was powerless to change or leave. Back then, how things went depended entirely upon how well my father was managing his alcoholism. But back then, I didn't know that. Back then, I thought maybe it was me.
OK, so how is that different from now? Now, I choose to be at this table. Now, I decide what the topic is and how we treat each other if we want to be in the room. Now, I can leave if I want. Now, I have power, protection. Now, I know that how everyone else shows up is not my responsibility. Now, while I may not be liked, I am actually quite safe.
I had been afraid of tables with people I cared about because I had been hurt at tables with people I cared about.
The more I asked myself questions, the closer I got to discovering a core belief. Somewhere far down in the shadows of my memory, I thought that if I did everything perfectly, I could un-do all that old hurt and keep any more from ever happening.
The table was my warning sign: This looks like a place you’ve been hurt before. Watch for fallen rocks. So I did in that conference room what I used to do in the kitchen of my childhood home: I braced myself emotionally and physically for more pain. I over-worked, trying to be flawless. I watched every face in the room, sensitive to the slightest eye movement, ready to take any sign that things would end badly.
This was my protection.
But, it turned out I no longer needed protection from something that happened thirty years ago.
As I look back across the eight years separating me from that newer CEO, I see that some of my proudest moments have been around a table. I take tables very seriously, like those S-curves in the mountains. The warning sign helps me pay attention so that I don't take them for granted. Meetings have become sacred spaces in my leadership practice: people I care about coming together for a mission we've all committed to, holding the tension of difficult topics safely, with respect. I have carefully curated the people around that table, and together we have intentionally designed the topics we discuss and the expectations for how we’ll treat each other.
Without that moment of reflection in the church parking lot when I paused to see connections between the kitchen table and the conference room, none of this would be true. Without that introspective learning process, I would still be spending enormous amounts of energy being afraid, pushing through, and collapsing afterwards. Meetings would be less sacred, more scarring. Now, I spend energy crafting. Creating. Collaborating. I still feel unsettled sometimes, hopeful that I don’t underperform or misstep. But this time, it's the kind of feeling that tells me the work matters – which is different from a panic that tells me I am in danger.
What's the lesson here?
First, fears can empower us when we pull them out of the cave and work with them in the daylight. What are your most debilitating fears, the ones that confound you, that you keep hidden?
And: your most powerful tools are your presence and your curiosity. What got me over the hump and helped me start leading differently was that I watched what was happening and I questioned it.
Watch was the wisest part of that wretched road sign. Not the rocks. Not the falling.
Watch right now.
The moment that is making you clench your jaw and tap your foot. Are rocks falling? Are you in danger?
No? Then keep driving, my friend. There’s more to this journey than what has already happened, and you're just the right person for the driver's seat.
PS: Coaching relationships are safe spaces to work with fears. A coach can help you pay attention, ask questions, and discover new insights into old patterns. You can learn more about my coaching practice or search for an accredited coach near you with this ICF tool.