A neurosurgeon removing a tumor. A member of the military learning to skydive. A boat captain facing the power of the ocean to bring back a few fish. These are just some jobs where results depend on keeping fear in check.
Over the years, I've learned that being a leader takes fearlessness, too. I've built my entire career around that concept, but the journey didn't just involve me. It took many other people to observe and be honest with me to realize my strength around fearlessness and bringing it to others.
Getting a better view from the outside
I caught the bug for leadership early in life. Even back in third grade, I enjoyed leading jumping jacks and encouraging my sports teammates around the field. I've also always really liked seeing the positive potential in things. For several years in my career, I channeled that through consulting work where I helped companies transform and grow, often by double digits. I didn't see it as all that fearless. I just believed in people and knew that, with a bit of help, they could believe in themselves, too.
Then, during one of the second turnarounds I did, one of my mentors said I was being pretty fearless in my work. When I asked him what he meant, he told me I was like a firefighter whose job is to run into a burning building, save whatever and whoever they can and ensure things can be rebuilt. Wasn't I running into companies and putting out the fires that would destroy them if left to burn?
Prior to that conversation, my perception of myself was accurate but not complete. I knew I had some good skills, like being a good communicator. But my mentor had a more objective, external view of who I was and what I could do. He helped me see that one of my biggest strengths was the ability to fix things. He pointed out that I could take all the fear, uncertainty and doubt people had and trade it for a healthy dose of confidence. Once I saw that skill with better clarity, I could embrace and lean into it even more. I decided that if it was something I did well that made a difference, I'd build my entire brand around it authentically and apply it to my work every day.
Fighting the ultimate inferno
Through the years, I've tried to apply the fearless leadership concept to just about all of my operations. But it's never been tested or turned into a full-time job so much as it was during the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of business fires, it was arguably the biggest inferno we'd ever had. People's usual need for reassurance and care skyrocketed because they had to work with many unknowns and were scared for themselves and the people they loved.
I didn't have all the answers as the virus upended things. Nobody did. I didn't know if I could extinguish everything. I couldn't even tell my team when we'd be back on site. I had to keep extending the return date further and further out. But it was instinctive for me to try to remove at least some of the heat. I made the conscious decision to make people as comfortable as possible throughout the crisis.
A big part of that was staying visible and keeping everybody connected. Usually, I'm big on walking the floor and just talking to people. It helps them know I'm available if they need help and I value their opinions. I couldn't do that in the traditional way when the pandemic forced everybody to go remote. But I realized that people still wanted to talk. They wanted to hear from me and each other. I made sure we met on virtual hangouts every single week because the need for support was so high. I could tell that pace was necessary because so many people consistently showed up. It allowed me to stay in tune with the organization and provide as much calm as possible, even as things rapidly changed around us.
Put on your gear
Most leaders aren't going to have to deal with a raging pandemic during their careers. But you will have your flames to put out, and part of your success will depend on doing so. The beautiful thing is that we each have our own way of dousing problems and bringing fearlessness to teams. You don't have to be fearless exactly the same way I am or your neighbor is. You just have to realize that others have valuable outsider perceptions of who you are. They can help you see all of the macro skills or bigger gifts that let you provide a competitive edge. Trust them when they hand you your fireproof coat because they wouldn't do it if they didn't trust the strengths you've got underneath it.