I was awestruck by this New York Times’ picture of the rubble of a home destroyed in a recent California wildfire. The charred sculpture seems a haunting symbol of our collective impotence to address the challenges we face.
Today’s Conversation explores how unrecognized fears undermine the courage necessary to act in our own best interest.
Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel, Siddhartha, portrays Siddhartha’s journey from spiritual seeker to businessman and back. The story provides insight into challenges that derail effectiveness.
After leaving his life as a samana (spiritual mendicant), Siddhartha entered business because he had fallen in love with an elegant courtesan who required expensive gifts.
In his first job interview, Siddhartha was asked how he could possibly manage Kamaswami’s vast estate without any previous business experience. Siddhartha enigmatically replied,
- “I can think,
- I can wait, and
- I can fast.”
Taken in the story’s context, Siddhartha’s reply referred to his confidence that he could conduct business free from greed, hatred, and delusion. Siddhartha radiated charisma and was hired on the spot. In a short time his dispassionate mindset led to a profitable expansion of the business.
At first his previous experience as a spiritual seeker seemed to protect Siddhartha from the self-indulgence of his new life. Over time, his protective detachment from his pastimes of drinking and gambling dissolved and he became thoroughly entangled in his life choices. One night he left in disgust and attempted suicide.
Despite his impressive success in business, the storyline suggests that Siddhartha’s quest as a spiritual seeker had not prepared him to successfully reengage in the world. Why not?
When analyzing the reasons for poor outcomes, one should look for an underlying fear that can explain the suboptimal performance (credit this insight to Gus Lee and his book Courage, The Backbone of Leadership). Then, by acting with better awareness of those fears, one can confront challenging situations more effectively.
In Siddhartha’s case, a fear of not being “unique enough” created anxieties that made him vulnerable:
- He left his father never to return because of his father’s “conventional” Brahman beliefs which Siddhartha chose not to follow.
- After meeting the Buddha, Siddhartha justified relinquishing the Buddha’s teachings because of the “need to find his own way”.
- Being good at business did not satisfy his need for uniqueness either, so he just “played” at it.
His belief in the importance of being unique also made him particularly susceptible to the charms of a courtesan’s compartmentalized love.
This need to be “unique” caused Siddhartha to undervalue the importance of knowledge already gained. His inability to solidify wisdom as he encountered it led to a life spiraling out of control.
Gus Lee outlined three steps to uncover the hidden fear that may be sabotaging one’s effectiveness:
- Identify a specific area(s) in which one is underperforming,
- Sort out the potential fears that may be undermining better results and choose which fear seems fundamental, and
- Decide whether that fear indeed justifies one’s approach to (usually avoidance) the situation or that one needs to address it differently.
This exercise is powerful because we tend to exaggerate the potential negative consequences of our under-recognized fears. They then become the hobgoblins that reduce effectiveness.
Here’s an example of the these three steps in an area of underperformance in my own career:
- For decades I had accepted my strength in mentoring “stars” and my weakness in mentoring “average” employees. My acceptance guaranteed that I would continue to be a less than stellar boss for those I assessed to be average performers. Was there a fear underlying my ineffectiveness? Yes.
- My fear arose from the extreme embarrassment that I imagined I would personally feel if I were less than a stellar employee myself. This led to my exaggeration of how uncomfortable others would feel when routine performance issues were addressed.
- My own fears made me insensitive to the reality that employees want to grow and need skillful counsel when they aren’t doing their best work.
Recognizing and addressing such fears can greatly improve one’s effectiveness.
Before finishing, I wanted to circle back to the societal ineffectiveness symbolized by the charred sculpture. What societal fears might be driving our current ineffectiveness? We’ll explore that question in the next Conversation.
Tomorrow’s Fix Today™,
Switch Healthcare designs solutions for self-insured employers dissatisfied with the healthcare status quo.
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