A transformative leader plants a tree under whose shade she might never sit. Transformative Leadership is service to the future; it is anticipatory. Nowhere does anticipation—mental projection into the future—wreak more havoc on us than when we are faced with the great unknown. Confronted with The Void, the mind is apt to create visions of pain and loss, great or small. I’ve been with executives so convinced of an awful unknown that they defaulted to fighting for status quo rather than for growth. I’ve struggled with my own doubt and indecision in the face of the unknown, opting at times to keep busy rather than commit to action in a new direction. For most of us, few things are as paralyzing as fear of the unknown.
Leading is rife with unknowns – regulations, competition, technology, tastes, emotions, market conditions, and loyalties and temptations. On one hand, the unknown offers opportunity and innovation. On the other hand, it scares us. When we get frightened, our fear holds us hostage in safety – financially, socially, and professionally.
What are we afraid of? For most of us, it’s one or more of these:
- Loss of control
- Loss of power
- Looking stupid
- Feeling incompetent
- Losing time
- Losing money
- Getting hurt
What about any of these is really unknown? What we’re afraid of is the undesirable and uncomfortable outcomes that we can’t control. The unknown offers a blank movie screen onto which we project our familiar and known fears. Try this thought experiment to understand the futility of fear of the unknown. Imagine that you are a pioneer in the early 1600s, sailing across the sea to the new world. Standing on the ship’s deck, hear the creaking of the wood, the sails stretching and flowing in the wind, and the cry of seagulls overhead. You’re using the stars and sun, and measuring with compass and sextant to guide your voyage. Wouldn’t it be great to have some of the navigation tools of the modern age? Imagine yourself as a pioneer on the ship, with a GPS guided Garmin. How efficiently you could organize and coordinate your expedition! But, as satellites are still 400 years away, your mind has no knowledge whatsoever of this technology – you don’t crave it, resent it, love it, or appreciate it. Because it’s unknown, you have no relationship, belief, or feeling toward the device. The unknown, by virtue of the absence of knowledge and awareness, cannot evoke any reaction from us—neither excitement nor fear.
While we use the term “fear of the unknown” it’s cognitively impossible to actually fear the unknown. We have fear of known things that we don’t like and may be powerless to avoid. The vast unknown is a backdrop upon which our mind parades a host of known and unwanted possibilities. I’ve tasted the bitter bite of failure; that’s not unknown. My heart has been broken by rejection; I wish that was unknown. I’ve lost money on investments that seemed great at the time, and I’ve lost time on projects that were well-conceived but poorly timed. All these memories of pain and loss come rushing to mind in the presence of the risk in the Unknown. Risk is ushered in by uncertainty—when a situation is not clearly or precisely determined or can’t be accurately known or predicted. We react with anxiety to the parade of negative and harmful possibilities that we recall and imagine. The Unknown elicits anxiety, but it also opens a door to excitement.
Here are three productive approaches to harness the power of the unknown:
- Make a plan. Planning is an exercise of imposing order over uncertainty. By planning, we project our imaginations forward and conceive a path and pattern to manage risk and opportunity. Planning is our commitment to tap the reservoir of potential that lies in the unknown. Use planning to venture into the realm of possibility, rather than being drawn back to the safety of the known. The old adage is true, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always have what you’ve always had.”
- Courageously peer into your thoughts and fears. Be honest about peeling back the obscuring layers of the “unknown” and decipher the unnamed fears lurking below. Name the fear – failure, rejections, loss of control, humiliation. Once the fear is named, it can be addressed and defused, and a reasonable plan can emerge.
- Reframe the fear as Leadership. Most likely, your fear won’t be eliminated; you can learn to name it, engage it, and ride its energy as a path to unlocking personal and organizational power. Ultimately, the unknown contains all untapped potential. This is the real power of the unknown… unlimited growth.
Fearlessness isn’t an option for sane people. If someone is promising you fearlessness, be suspicious of what they’re selling. You can, though, cultivate courage. You can chose to walk toward what you’d rather run away from. This is the contribution of leadership – to guide people on an uncertain and unknown expedition toward a desirable shared vision.
You can be afraid, curious, committed, in service, and excited all at the same time. This isn’t crazy, it’s leadership.