If we’re free-associating and I say the word bravery, your first thought might be about physical courage. But there are many other forms of bravery. As Nelson Mandelasaid, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” (Who would know better than Madiba?)
Think of courage that way and it’s obvious that bravery — sometimes an extraordinary level of bravery — is required in leadership and business. Like taking a chance when others will not. Or following your vision, no matter where it leads. Or standing up for what you believe in, even though those beliefs are extremely unpopular.
Or simply doing the right thing, even when doing the right thing is also the hardest thing.
But how can you be brave when you feel anything but? How can you come up with that dose of courage you need when you need it most? Good questions.
So I asked Kimberly Davis, a former actress turned leadership educator, a TEDx speaker, and the author of Brave Leadership: Unleash Your Most Confident, Powerful, and Authentic Self to Get the Results You Need (one of my six great business books to read in 2018).
Haden: We all probably like to think we would run toward danger, not away, but I think we also realize that’s a lot harder to do in the moment than we hope.
Davis: You’re right. How many people, if you were to ask if they felt brave, would say, “Damn straight!”? Probably not many.
For most of us, our brave lives on a big continuum, hovering right around “I got this” on a good day, and “God, help me” on a bad one.
Brave tends to be that illusive feeling we all want but few can claim. We know when we need it — job interviews, tough negotiations, pitching investors, delivering bad news, taking big risks, and leaping into the unknown — but it’s how to get there, consistently, that’s the challenge.
If we want to replicate brave, we need to understand what’s getting in our way.
Have you ever wondered why, when you think to yourself, “I need to be brave,” it seems to have the opposite effect?
I know for me, I’ll be prepping for something important and think, “Please, let me be brave,” and almost immediately my stomach will clench, my mind will swim, and I’ll start spinning doomsday scenarios in my mind. Just thinking about being brave triggers a flood of sensations.
It’s no wonder. If you consider a standard definition of brave, “to face or endure pain or danger,” you can see why we’re not terribly psyched about it.
That’s how we’re built. The amygdala in our brains has a big job. It’s in charge of our emotions and tasked with keeping us alive. When it senses risk, it can’t help but jump in to save the day.
So you think focusing on being brave will pump you up, but since that makes your subconscious aware of the pain and danger, all it really does is cause a flood of stress hormones designed to stop you in your tracks.
As your hands start to shake and your breathing grows shallow, you feel less and less confident — and your bravery abandons you in your time of need.
It’s ironic, but the key to being brave is to actually not think about it.
If you want to bring your most confident, authentic, and powerful self to the high-stakes situations in your life, you have to find a way to short-circuit your amygdala so it won’t notice the potential pain and danger.
Actors know that: Since the turn of the century, they’ve been trained to do exactly that. Being onstage, in the spotlight, in front of a bunch of people who might judge you — that’s an incredibly vulnerable place to be.
You don’t want to make a mistake or look foolish. You want to prove yourself and impress your critics. An actor is required to consistently perform in a high-stakes environment. They can’t afford to be a victim to their amygdala.
Not to mention that bad acting kills ticket sales.
Same thing. And there’s another business parallel. While most artists don’t think about a theater’s bottom line, Konstantin Stanislavski stands in sharp contrast. (Note: “Method” actors use a key component of the Stanislavski system.)
Stanislavski was the son of a prominent Russian business family and the director of the Moscow Art Theatre. Also an actor, he wanted to understand the secret to replicating a great performance. So he studied what the most successful performers — the ones audiences clamored to see — did.
He discovered that a powerful performance had very little to do with talent, looks, or experience, and everything to do with the focus of the actors’ attention. The best actors, the ones that audiences would pay a lot of money to see, were instinctively doing something different.
They weren’t worried about making mistakes, or focused on the butterflies in their stomachs or their sweaty palms, or what others thought about them, or trying to impress anyone, or to prove themselves. Their focus wasn’t on themselves.
Instead, they focused all their attention on achieving what Stanislavski called their “Super Objective”: making an impact on someone or something outside themselves.
The by-product was a consistent, seemingly effortless, mesmerizing performance that made the theater a lot of money.
By focusing on their Super Objective, actors were able to, without thinking about it, circumvent their amygdala.
As it turns out, it works the same way offstage.
If you focus on yourself — on what people think about you, how you’re feeling, or what might happen — it’s difficult to bring your best you to the situation.
But if you take your focus off yourself and shift it to the impact you want to have outside yourself — on something bigger than you — you can show up more powerfully in any situation you face.
Regardless of how high the stakes might be, or how vulnerable you may feel, a Super Objective helps you be brave.
Ask yourself these four questions to unlock your Super Objective and get better results:
Why do you care about the work you do or the people you serve?
Take your paycheck out of the equation. What do you love most?
When you think about the times you’ve felt like you’ve made a difference and where you get the most joy, were you helping someone one-on-one, in a small group or team, or a specific group of people like employees, students, or patients?
Or maybe you’re a big-picture kind of person and want to impact your organization, your culture, your community, or the world?
In short, where do you get your energy?
What is the purpose of your doing what you do? What problem does your work solve?
This is the key question to ask yourself. When you think about who or what you care about most, and then factor in why you truly care and do what you do, what is the impact you personally want to have on your employees, your clients, your students, your culture, etc.?
Frame the impact you want to have in active language. Use active verbs: I want to build a stronger culture … I want to unleash talent … I want to create …
Keep in mindit’s easy to look at the Super Objective as a simple hack that will get you through a tough situation for better results. It does do that, but it’s so much more.
Since a Super Objective is anchored in what you care about most and inherently threads your values and strengths into your actions, it allows you to engage in life and work on a completely different level. It’s your purpose in action and the key to being your best you, consistently and responsibly.
For most of us, bravery unfolds one situation at a time.
Focus on the impact you can make. When you do, you’ll find the courage and bravery you need to make that difference.
Originally published on Inc.
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