Be Fearless…or at Least Appear to Be

Be Fearless...or at Least Appear to Be

This is the first post in a new series from #RADxx members who attended AAWR lectures at ACR 2018. Today, author Dr. Michelle Dorsey shares her perspective on the session Be Fearless…. or at Least Appear to Be featuring speaker Dr. Cheri Canon.

The title of this talk arose out of a recent conversation Dr. Canon was having with a gentleman at a meeting, who told her that she was absolutely fearless. Dr. Canon felt it was an ironic statement, as she notes that not a day goes by that she doesn’t feel paralyzed with fear. She notes that fear is good, a protective response, but it also has unintended consequences. As leaders, we should not make decisions out of fear. Instead, use fear to guide you.

The feeling of fear is an indicator that something is important and that it means something to you. Frequently, it means that you are afraid to fail. It is important to listen to your body’s responses to situations, and Dr. Canon notes that when she reflects on the times she has made mistakes, it is because she failed to listen to her own internal little voice. Your emotions express yourself in your body and fear is that feeling deep in your belly. You should listen to that feeling so you can manage it. You can’t be truly fearless, because as a leader people follow you, and you make decisions that affect their lives. It is appropriate to have a bit of fear about it as otherwise, it’s just arrogance!

Next, Dr. Canon reflected on what drives fear in her life. For her, budget time is a fearful time as she is managing a department and making financial decisions which will affect people’s livelihoods. She also finds that she gets nervous for her monthly faculty meeting because she cares deeply about the people she will be addressing. She notes that words matter, so we must be careful how we select them. In the past, board meetings also scared her, as she was frequently the only woman in the room as well as the youngest person. She recollected a time when a man commented that he liked having her at the board meetings because he, “loved to see what color your hair is going to be.” She replied, “they now make hair dye that doesn’t interfere with making good decisions.” She notes it is important to be confident and be authentic. Also, being vulnerable and willing to share your mistakes is vital, so that people can relate to you as a real person.

Dr. Canon went on to discuss that being confident changes your physiology. It is good to practice a powerful stance- the superwoman pose– although not in your boss’ office! Studies have shown that hormonal levels change when you assume a power posture, and your testosterone levels increase. These hormonal changes can impact how you conduct yourself. She encouraged us to try it out before our next big meeting.

There are inherent differences that exist between men and women, Dr. Canon remarked. For example, at board meetings, the decisions have frequently already been made before the meeting even starts. Men have pre-meetings, have discussed how they will vote, and know their talking points. Women approach board meetings differently as they prepare and bring data with the hopes that there will be a collective discussion and a group decision. Dr. Canon notes that this is not how board meetings work and instead women should do the pre-work necessary to prepare for the meeting.

Dr. Canon’s advice is to practice empathy, as emotional intelligence is the foundation of good leadership. Empathy is not just being nice but rather taking the time to consider the perspective of the other person. It requires you to pull yourself out of your own thoughts.

Empathy enables you to better understand the impact of your decisions, as well as know where people are coming from, which is critical when you need to convince them of your position. Try to practice empathy every day.

Everything doesn’t have to be perfect, in fact, it will never be, Dr. Canon cautions. We will always fall short and that is the reality. Try to reflect and be insightful about why the project failed. This process should make you feel a bit uncomfortable, as it always stings a bit to examine why it is that you failed. Once you have learned from it, then it is time to move on. Don’t dwell on your mistakes, as there will always be more down the line! If there is a project you are hesitating about or are avoiding confrontation, you need to push yourself forward. It is important to act on something even if you are afraid of making a mistake. Dr. Canon advises that you are not pushing yourself hard enough if you are not making a few mistakes.

Dr. Canon then went on to discuss the differences between introverts and extroverts. She noted that leaders are usually thought of as extroverts but some of the most successful leaders are introverts. She referenced a book by Jim Collins called Good to Great. The book examined companies on the stock market that had a dramatic rise and then sustained that level of success for 15 years. They evaluated the leadership in those companies and found that many were quiet leaders (introverts) yet were very successful. Companies with charismatic, larger-than-life leaders weren’t able to sustain their improvements as those leaders tended to be egocentric, were not interested in a team approach, and just wanted to move forward their agenda. She notes that our current interview processes are flawed, and tend to favor the outgoing, gregarious candidate, but she has seen these types of hiring practices backfire. Attending a one hour webinar on the unconscious bias isn’t going to solve this problem. Introspective, introverted leaders should be recognized and encouraged.

Dr. Canon highlighted the need for mentors and sponsors, with the note that having a sponsor is more impactful than a mentor. Everyone should try to find a sponsor, someone who is willing to put their credibility on the line for you. Women should be sponsors of other women. We need to intentionally pull them up and give back to the next generation of leadership. She encouraged us to think about how you want to craft your legacy-what do you want to be remembered for?

Finding, your passion is the best mitigant against burnout said, Dr. Canon. She was told once that being a Chair is a “series of near-death events.” For her, it has been a process of gaining experience which then gives her perspective that the problems are solvable. You just have to find the right team, be patient, and learn to remain calm. She notes that all things come to an end, both good and bad. You cannot let fear take over. In fact, when you stop feeling afraid, it is usually a bad sign. Fear in other people can manifest as bad behaviors. You should try to connect with other people’s fear, which can allow you to overcome that behavior. But if you can’t quell a bad behavior, then you must promptly act on it as a leader. Do not let bad behavior rule the day.

Dr. Canon concluded that we should embrace our fear. Be strong and power through it.

An interactive discussion followed with highlights below:

  • It is important to build relationships with people outside of work. One way to do the pre-meeting work is by making connections with people. Be authentic in these attempts.
  • Don’t micromanage people! Seek out experience from others, assemble a great team, and appreciate your support staff. Remember to tell your staff thank you.
  • Discussion ensued about how to back out of commitments without disappointing someone. Dr. Canon recommends going through the schedule exercise: look at your schedule and see what events or meetings that you are looking forward to attending. If you are dreading it, then it’s time to get out. You should spend your bandwidth on the things that you love. Everything will fall into place if you do what you love.
  • It was put forward that women do the job first and ask for the title later. Dr. Canon agrees that if you do a good job then the titles will come. But, if the doors are not opening like they should, then it is time for you to be more intentional. See who is on the other side of the door to help you open it. Reach out to them to get their opinion.
  • In a similar vein, it was discussed that women earn their positions (show they can perform in the role before achieving it) while men get their positions on the promise of being able to do well, without actually demonstrating their ability. Dr. Canon noted that she has seen a positive trend that women are asking more and negotiating more, although she is unsure if that relates to the fact that she is a female Chair, which makes women more comfortable with the ask. She notes it is important to take your emotions out of it, know what you are asking for, and present a good case.
  • Imposter syndrome was discussed as another version of fear. It shows you have humility, but you have to power through it and not let it rule your life.
  • Women tend to not reveal things unless specifically asked. Ask!
  • Queen bee syndrome is dying out. In the earlier days, women leaders became self-protective because there was often only one opportunity in an organization for a woman leader, and they had to defend their positions. Now, the behavior is going away.