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Six Fears Preventing You From Being the Leader You Want To Be
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Six Fears Preventing You From Being the Leader You Want To Be

From our work to our circle of family and friends, our spheres of impact can hold us back—but we can overcome them. Nell Derick Debevoise investigates.
By Nell Derick Debevoise
2nd Jun 2021

It’s a natural human drive to want to have more impact and to be recognized for that impact. Abraham Maslow called it Esteem; Tony Robbins calls it Contribution and Significance. And evolutionary biologists confirm that we have evolved as one of the most cooperative species on the planet. Our survival is favored by working together with non-related peers — indeed, we are far less competitive than pop culture leads us to believe.

So why don’t we all have resolutions or quarterly strategies, apps, and trainers or coaches to get us where we want to be, having more impact on our family, our friends, our teams, companies, neighborhoods, even — or especially—on ourselves? Because it’s scary to step into our power. As Marianne Williamson said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

But 2020 was a not-so-gentle wake-up call that the status quo—the harmful impacts we have been having (or the positive impacts we haven’t been having) on the people and planet around us—is not working. Make no mistake: It’s not working for anyone, even if the suffering is less proximate or visceral for some of us (specifically wealthy and/or white folks who may be temporarily protected by the very status quo that needs to change). The current way we work and live will lead to cataclysmic decline in our collective well-being, and even survival, within decades if we don’t change the impact we’re having.

The Path — and Obstacles — to Change

Even once you’ve recognized a need to change, and glimpsed a better way forward, change is hard. It’s often not complicated, and the path to most desired change is readily available. We know how to slow climate change, become anti-racist, and reverse the trend of women’s exodus from the formal workforce. But change means rewiring our neurons, swapping out habitual behaviors, and recognizing that our former choices were suboptimal or even harmful to ourselves or someone else. These actions take concentrated attention and willpower, of which we have limited amounts that are already maxed out for most of us.

To make the changes required to create the positive impact we want — and need — to have on the people and planet around us, we need to examine is what’s holding us back. Fear is an extremely powerful demotivator, but it can be hard to recognize our fear of being impactful, the counterintuitive point made by the Williamson quote.

According to one of the most effective behavior change systems on the planet, the first step is recognizing we have a problem. To become the leader you know you could be, in the service of your team, your family or community, or even yourself, consider these six Fears of Impact. They are universal and map holistically to our work and personal lives.

spheres of impact graphic
The Fears of Impact fall into the Spheres of Impact: the six areas in which we can all have more impact. (Image credit: Nell Derick Debevoise)

The Fears of Impact in Your Personal Life

The first and perhaps most insidious type of fear is in the sphere of our self. We fear failing or, perhaps even worse, looking silly. What if we shine too bright, countering our mother’s or Bible’s exhortation not to be boastful? What if we come to see that we had been wasting time, or hurting someone before we changed? As they say, “The devil we know is better than the one we don’t.” The inertia pushing us not to change is powerful.

Still in the personal realm, but beyond ourselves, is the fear we have related to our family and friends. What if they don’t like us or even recognize us after we change to be more impactful? What if they’re offended at the implied suggestion that we’re now better than them? What if our change reveals a difference of opinion between us? What if we have less time for them once we have the impact we’re looking to have?

The Fears of Impact in Your External Life

In the professional realm, there’s a lot to scare ourselves with in terms of the job we hold — or even the one we hope to hold in those moments of transition. What if our boss or colleagues don’t like the new impact we have? The relevant adage here is that “You don’t get fired for hiring IBM.” In other words, keeping with the status quo — not changing your impact — is the safest way to keep your job. The problem with this perspective is that in today’s world of rapid change, these traditional behaviors are becoming outdated, making the status quo “riskier” than change. We see that in the coal industry, for example, where it is now more costly to keep operating than to close a plant.

More broadly, you may scare yourself about having more or different impact at your employer organization beyond the specific constraints of your job. What if you speak up — or act — about something that your manager or CEO doesn’t agree with? What if your individual purpose isn’t perfectly in line with the company’s? Spoiler: You’ll likely end up leaving if you can’t reconcile the two, and it’s probably better to figure that out sooner than later. But just like our jobs are changing fast, so are companies. Employees have more power than ever to speak their truths and act accordingly, whether or not the company is able to keep up right away.

Beyond our day jobs, we can also get scared about the implications of having impact in our communities. What if we are shunned as trouble makers or activists? What if our new impact reveals disagreement in a community of which we’re a longtime member? Or perhaps scariest of all, what if stepping up and having more impact on an issue we care about gets us recognition, and then to do more and bring others with us? It’s easy to think that we can — and should — all share opinions in our era of commercialized social media.

But when you overcome your fear of having more impact in your community, you’re likely to find an empowering and grateful crowd of others eager to join you. Your wishes for change are like those questions in elementary school: If you have one, someone else probably does too. Speak up!

“Employees have more power than ever to speak their truths and act accordingly, whether or not the company is able to keep up right away.”

Finally, the scariest topic of all, perhaps second only to seeing our true selves: Money! The impact you could be having with your money is massive. Indeed, the “essentials” we collectively choose to buy are among the most powerful levers in the economy given the volume of sales.

So what do you buy? And for those with more disposable income, what do you donate to and invest in? What impact do you want those financial decisions to have on the people and planet? Can you get over the fear of losing your money, wasting your money, or looking silly to your financial advisor or grocery store checkout clerk?

Confront the Six Fears of Impact to Become the Leader You Want to Be

Which of these fears do you want to let go of today? Is it the one that you now see is the most trivial? Or perhaps you want to start with the biggest and most daunting? Wherever you decide to start, just start. Perfect is the enemy of the good in the case of change. In fact, merely committing to confront the fear you choose to start with has impact. In the words of Scottish Himalayan explorer W. H. Murray, quoted by Michael Neill:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”

Whichever Fear of Impact you commit to start with, you will start to see more positive impact in that Sphere of your life. That is a good thing for your own well-being and performance, as well as the people and planet around you. Learn about those companion Spheres of Impact here.

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