Wednesday, May 9, 2012

AxSA: Expositions (09 May 2012)


As far as small pleasures go, if I have to say that I have one, then it is certainly the one or two hours that I spend walking or biking. For me, these times amount to rare opportunities during the day when I am left alone to clear my head and think, or to pray, or to simply listen to a useful podcast, all while getting in some much-required exercise for this aging body. And so it was that, on a decent spring day, about two years ago, I found myself walking near the museum at City Park, which happens to be my favorite part of New Orleans.

My routine back then, as now, was usually pretty simple. Armed with my earphones and running shoes, I parked along the main drive to the museum, called up something to listen to, and then set out for my brisk walk. That late morning, though, I did do something different. Rather than head for the waterside path taking me to Delgado Community College, I decided to first walk around Big Lake, at the front of the park. For those people who’ve never seen it, Big Lake is really just a huge, but tranquil, pond where ducks, geese and paddle-boaters gather, and curiously enough, it is where, in one area, the walking track that encircles this body of water actually stretches out over the water and then arches back to land. For all the many times I walked across that little bridge, I would have honest said that, prior to that morning, I had never given its sturdiness any real though.

As a made my way back onto land from the bridge, I nodded to an older woman who seemed to be going in the opposite direction but, for some reason, had stopped. My nonverbal greeting must have been the only entrĂ©e that she needed for a conversation, because she began to say something while pointing to the bridge and water before her. “Ma’am, I am sorry, but I did not hear you,” I told her, after removing my earphones.

The woman, probably in her late fifties or early sixties, looked at me, smiling, and she apologize for stopping me. Then she said, “I just wanted to know if that water is deep.”

I returned the smile, chuckling a little bit, and I explained that it was not. In fact, at least in this area of Big Lake, the water could have been no more than two feet deep, maybe three. I went on to assure her that the arched bridge was quite safe, and that she had no reason for concern. Unfortunately, that was not enough to assuage her trepidation. She looked ahead for a moment, and then she shook her head. Stepping back from the bridge, she said that she was afraid of that much water, and that she should have not walked that way.

I probably should have walked away at that point, particularly given the fact that I knew she could have taken another course, but being the person that I am, I did not. Instead, I insisted to her that there was nothing to fear, pointing out the other folks crossing the bridge without harm, and then I extended my hand and asked her if I help her across.

I could have only imagined what went through the woman’s mind at that moment. Not only was her worst fear impeding her course; now this stranger was offering to walk her across it. She resisted, saying, “Baby, only Jesus was meant to walk on water.” To that, I replied with total agreement, and reminded her that that was why God gave man the ability to build bridges. My quick response was well-received, and after laughing for a moment, she finally said, “Okay.” She to my hand with a deep breath, and we slowly proceeded across the bridge, with me instructing her a few time not to look down but ahead.

When we finally made it across, the woman took a few more deep breaths, as if this effort had been more strenuous than the power walking she had been down. She looked back at the bridge, and then at me. “I guess it’s not as narrow as I thought. It did not even shake or anything.” I nodded. She thanked me, and then she added, in a rather triumphant tone, “I might not cross it by myself next time, but I know now that I can do it!”

My work was done. I shook the woman’s hand, popped my earphones back into place, and proceeded back across the bridge to start my own walk.

The aforementioned story is quite true, and I think of it a lot, particularly when the subject of fear comes to the fore, which is quite often in my line of work. That’s because, whether dealing with aspiring entrepreneurs or even seasoned executives with deeply entrenched modi operandi, I find that underlying fears are typically the most prevalent culprits behind indecision, inaction, stagnation, regression, and so on. And interestingly enough, these businesspeople are not just fearful of making the wrong decision about their direction; they are often fearful about continuing on their current paths. Like that older woman in the park, these businesspeople can succumb to hard-driving emotions, and they, too, whether knowingly or unknowingly, hesitate at the water’s edge. Unfortunately, though, the fear of these businesspeople can impede more than daily exercise; their fear can affect destinies. That is why the words of noted evangelist TD Jakes ring true: “Fear is the assassin of greatness.”

In order to overcome or manage fear, it must first be understood for what it is. Many are unlikely to admit it, but fear is something that resides in each of us. It is an emotional response to stimuli that, in humans, travels through our neural circuitry from the parts of the brain known as the amygdala, and because this emotion is connected to the self-preservation instincts of every living organism, it would be fair to say that its existence dates back to the dawn of creation. In humans, fear is triggered when the amygdala recognizes threatening stimuli being collected by the body’s senses, which also happens to be sharing this information with the brain’s cortex. Detecting a threat, the amygdala can bypass the neocortex and prompts the body into action, even without a conscious impetus, quickly initiating an evaluation of the perceived threat and determining an appropriate response. There is little that the untrained mind can do; fear can strike out of nowhere. And just as literal threats can cause a rush of insurmountable fear, figurative ones like uncertainty can also cause ongoing bouts of anxiety and apprehension.

In his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman wrote that we have two minds---one emotional, the other rational---and that, for the sake of a healthy life, the rational mind had to be in control. He described emotional intelligence (EQ) as the ability to “motivate and persist in the face of frustrations, to control impulses and delay gratification, to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think, [and] to empathize and to hope.” Goleman believed that people were too often collared by their emotional mind, but through EQ, they could learn to temper their emotional propensities and discover ways to grow. And where fear was concerned, Goleman acknowledged that it was possible to reshape the human response to threatening stimuli, by working to help individuals understand why they are afraid, redefine the stimuli that frightened them, and replace negative experiences of the past with new and positive ones. This process was called emotional relearning.

Such a psychotherapeutic approach to understanding and overcoming fear is also useful in the business world, where fear can undermine new ventures, cause the suppression of much-needed talent and ideas, upend change initiatives, and (worst still) strengthen corrupt or obsolete leadership. As said before, nearly every businesspeople is like the woman in the park, arriving at the water’s edge with trepidation, but those businesspeople with the capacity to identify and overcome their fears might have a better shot at success than those who elect to stand there or those who decide to take costly detours.

Here are a few thoughts on how you can begin to understand and overcome the fears affecting your business:

·         Recognize that you are standing on the water’s edge. Fear is a common emotion, and it is nothing for which anyone should be ashamed. As you start to make this recognition, you can begin to understand what the fear is and how it is impacting your organization.
·         Develop a vision of the other side. You should ask yourself the question: if not for this emotional impediment, where could your organization be? An honest effort to answer this question will enable you to paint of picture of where you would like to take your organization. From there, you can set attainable benchmarks and goals by which to transform that picture into your reality.
·         Know the real enemy. Many fears are based on inaccurate presumptions. As you begin to identify your fears, you should also make an effort to fully understand where they come from, and determine more accurately their levels of potency and validity. What you find may surprise you; the fears may be unfounded. This is often true, for example, when I am working with individuals who seem to have large dreams but do not believe that they have the ability to be entrepreneurs.
·         Get help. There is no shame in admitting your limits, and this is the reason that people in my field consistently tell businesspeople that they need BAIL (“bankers, accountants, insurance agents, and lawyers”), as well as bright business consultants, to help devise and navigate the course forward. These people, along with the members of your own team, will complement your abilities and serve as a support system.
·         Take that first step. Once you have an idea of where you are headed and a plan for getting there, do not be afraid to go for it.
·         Persevere until you make it. When you are confronting what should be fearful moments, the typical biological impulses may surface. Nevertheless, you must have confidence, and trust your rational mind, as well as your support system, to get you through the anxiety.
·         Know that everything is temporal. Today’s times of challenge are tomorrow’s moments of triumph. You must remember that what you face today, if encountered effectively, can help to propel you forward, where undoubtedly, you will face a whole new set of challenges and where you may have to identify different types of fears. With any luck, though, the lessons learned from today will prepare you for much of what is further down the road.

On a regular basis, I encounter fear. It comes in the form of smart people who, though they have great ideas for new businesses, are not willing to pursue them, because they fear failure or happen to be uncomfortable with the uncertainty. It also comes in the form of businesspeople that, in spite of years of experience, don’t move their enterprises forward, because they fear new learning curves or the market and competitive risks, and for them, complacency seems like a better option. With both forms, though, I think of the woman in the park, and then I am reminded of another quote, this one from South Africa’s sociopolitical champion Nelson Mandela. As a man who put his life on the line to fundamentally change his country, Mr. Mandela might know a little bit about fear, and he once said this of the emotion: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Most people, and particularly the fearful ones that I encounter, would be do well to learn from his words, so that they can, one day, set their sights on bigger opportunities.

 Gary C. Harrell is the founder and managing principal of Axiom Strategy Advisors, LLC. For additional information, please write

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