It’s hard to imagine us ever really using the term “normal” again. Yet, as more people become vaccinated and certain restrictions on life are lifted, we all have opportunities to return to some of what was, even if it feels different than it did prior to the pandemic.
As we have moved toward recovery, I have been surprised at the level of fear I have felt as I look to resume parts of my life that were incredibly important. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable going out to a restaurant again. We are planning on doing some traveling later this spring and summer, and truth be told, I’m nervous about it. We still are gathering in very, very small groups, without a sense of when we might want to gather with a larger cohort of our friends, relatives and acquaintances.
And, as I learned when we were heading into the pandemic, we can’t let fear be our guide. While we need to acknowledge its presence, we also need to recognize that it is simply one way of viewing the world. This fear of “going back” can be debilitating, almost as much so as when we were first discovering what COVID-19 was.
With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about ways to let fear be known while also making sure I don’t let it take the lead in my work with others.
Here are three steps we can take to keep fear in check.
Speak truth to how we feel
Sometimes speaking out loud is the first step to getting past a significant obstacle. Fear is at its strongest when we feel we are alone and don’t acknowledge its presence or our level of discomfort. Using statements such as “I want everyone to know that this is hard for me because … or “I’m doing my best, and I know I will get better, and this is still a challenge for me because … “ shows others that we recognize that fear is playing a role and that we need the support of those in our lives to help us get past it. And, ideally, it frees us from at least a portion of fear’s hold.
Take calculated risks
One great way to begin to move through fear is to force ourselves to take risks. Risks are inherently fear-inducing — they can turn out to be empowering or incapacitating — but the feeling we get when we conquer a key challenge is inspiring and truly fills us up. That empowerment, however, is more likely achieved when taking calculated risks — the ones we think through before engaging in them.
Here’s an example: Let’s say that you are a high-school principal looking to hold your first faculty meeting in person since the pandemic began. You are nervous, both because it has been a long time since you have been in the same space as all your team members and because you know that a number of your staff haven’t yet been vaccinated. You could hold your faculty meeting just as you would have pre-pandemic and face the fear head on. Or, you could hold your meeting outside with adequate social distancing, ample ventilation and, as an added bonus, enjoy the spring weather. Both are risky, but one is more calculated.
Leaders who take calculated risks often overcome challenges and fears more slowly, but regularly overcome them feeling more capable of growing and moving forward.
Know when we’ve pushed too far
A really interesting space lives between routine and wholly new experiences. This is where the level of risk balances the level of reward, and where we feel just enough fear and frustration to award ourselves the pride that comes from pushing through to accomplishment. It is a small space though, and we have all experienced those times when we have either pushed ourselves too little or pushed ourselves too far.
Part of effective leadership is knowing when we are teetering between the two. One of the biggest leadership lessons I’ve learned over the course of the last 14 months has been that it is better to recognize when we have pushed too far and then shift courses rather than to continue to push and not be able to recover. If we have built strong relationships and accumulated trust, we can always apologize for a misstep. That said, it is much harder to apologize for a misleap. There is simply no excuse for us getting that far down a road and not realizing the damage we are doing.
Fear can’t be removed in totality. And frankly, we shouldn’t want to. Fear helps us take stock, and it also helps us realize our humanity; we can never be humbled enough. That said, fear is one emotion that only works when it is controlled. If we give in to fear, then we lose our ability to lead and learn (at least effectively). By recognizing the presence of fear, and taking the three actions above (among others) we stand to be less fearful, and more capable, of growing from any experience.
Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks, and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.
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