I Dare You to Tell Me This Isn’t The Biggest Leadership Challenge!


Isn’t it superb that leadership is a life long process?!! And guess what’s likely the single most important passage in that process of leadership development? I’m 100% behind Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner when they write: “Only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.” (See the full, marvelous quotation in the first footnote below.) But here’s what’s too terribly absent from the leadership literature:  We are almost never told that the greatest leadership challenges lie within. Or, after reading this today, tell me I’m wrong.

We all come factory equipped by nature and nurture. And two of our inbuilt “systems” impede our highest level of leadership performance. One of these systems is the inevitably partial way in which we see the world – partial, in both senses of that word. Each of us only sees a part of it all. Yet on top of that partial condition, we favor that part, i.e., I am partial toward my way. A part of my wife’s way, for instance, is to be fanatically results-oriented, while a part of my way, by great contrast, is to be people-oriented and process-oriented (Myers Briggs aficionados see Note 2 below.) Each way captures an important part of leadership, but being overly partial to one or the other creates dangerous blindsides. I may not get stuff done, while Jennifer may get it done but in a way that’s too quick and won’t stick. Of course, we’re each partial to our ways. Indeed, Jennifer would rightly say that in my heights of hidden(?) arrogance I spent years trying to get her to be more like me.

This partial way can be affected by many of the pieces of our cultural baggage: our religious upbringing (or lack thereof), our economic and political upbringing, our clan, family heritage, birth order, etc., all contribute to our unique partiality. Great leaders find that the older they get the more they realize how little they really know, and how the things they used to think they knew, had more to do with the particular (note the “part” at the beginning of the word “particular”) filters they possessed, than with the reality that they thought they saw with distinct clarity through those filters. So, one great challenge for you, leader, is to learn to see your own filter, and to value the myriad other views that help you see the full set of external challenges and opportunities and options.

I said there were two different systems that created the inner challenges for leaders, and while the particulars come in tens if not hundreds of combinations and permutations, the other internal system is utterly simple, universal and even more pervasive. It’s the mind’s captivation by a four letter word that starts with “F.” It’s fear. Not scary movie fear. Not childish fear.  But deep, hidden fear . . . that we’re not good enough . . . that we’re imposters . . . that people don’t like us . . . that we’re going to get fired . . . that we’ll lose control. . . that . . .that. . . that . . .

Seriously.  The older I get the more I realize that fear can run my life, that unobserved, fear will run my life. It can result in workaholism to compete and prove myself, as I fear I’ve “lost” the competition with other writers, parents, speakers, siblings – heck even my own wife. (That’s scary: how can I compete with her! 😉 )  Take the most banal example, but one relevant for “driving” leaders.  I was realizing over the past week of 100s of miles driving a car in a strange new place that I was hearing mere navigational questions from my passengers as challenges or doubts about whether I was really in control, or was lost (a great primal fear).  And, now there’s some classic male baggage for you!

If I could do ONE thing, just ONE thing to help toxic bosses, awful parents, egotistic politicians, I’ll bet you, and I know me, it would be this:  awaken us to expect and accept that there is a very small person inside, who has the ability to hold our mind and ensuing actions, captive. Get really open to how our partial beliefs, partial knowledge, and partiality can ally with fear to make us do really small and often hurtful things to the work and the people that really matter to us. I dare you (inciting fear?) to show me there is anything that’s a greater challenge – and opportunity – than our partiality and fear; as we strive to

Lead with our best Self.


Note 1: Here’s the full quote from Kouzes and Posner’s classic, The Leadership Challenge: “Name any great leader, performer, scientist, athlete, activist, citizen.  Chances are that the crucible of that person’s crowning achievement was some distressing crisis, wrenching change, tragic misfortune, or risky venture.  Only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.” My note: notice how fear is implicated in each of the four “challenges” the authors cite: “distressing crisis, wrenching change, tragic misfortune, or risky venture.”  The encounter is not only with the external “crisis, change, misfortune, venture,” but also involves an encounter with the inner demons.

Note 2: Those who know Myers-Briggs know that we can turn our particular “preferences” e.g., for extraversion over introversion or for thinking over feeling into biases.  My combination of preferences for introversion, intuition, feeling and perception all incline me toward people, the internal, and process.  Meanwhile, Jennifer’s preferences for extraversion, thinking and judging drive her toward external systems, results, and change in the outside world.  Each is hugely valuable, but alone they are dangerous. The combination, as in so many partnerships makes for challenge and misunderstanding yet also the possibility for breakthrough insight and great complementarity.

  • Dan,

    I am still driven by the words of Stephen M.R. Covey in his book the “Speed of Trust,” that if we really want to create change anywhere, at home, at work, toxic bosses, with our kids, our peers, etc. That we are going to have to address the issues of trust. Without it (Trust) no matter how driven we are or how goal oriented we are we are going to miss something. ~The TIP Lady

  • This post was a real thought-provoker Dan. It made me think that what I might consider that what is behind my own “drive” may actually be fear. I’ve always known that I have a great fear of being “shamed” or ashamed – a result, I suppose, of some pretty strict religious upbringing. When I started my business eight years ago, the biggest driver for me was to not shame myself by being successful with it. In this case, it worked – fear drove success, as in your observation of Kouzes and Posner’s work. So – might we conclude that sometimes fear can be a good thing?

  • Dan, I just facilitated a retreat for men this weekend on “Shame and Worthiness – Rediscovering our Hidden Wholeness.” Your post this morning reminds me of much that we explored during that retreat.

    I believe that we tend to experience shades of shame far more often than we experience worthiness, yet each of us has a worthiness that is far more fundemental and true than our shame. Very often the fear you mentioned comes from years of listening to the whispers of shame in our minds, eventually allowing those whispers to slip into our hearts.

    Just this morning one of our girls tried to reach into the fridge and pull out her lunch bag for school. The bag was up high, and she really stretched, reached, and . . . knocked out the tob of yogurt that splattered all over her pants and the floor. My immediate, knee-jerk reaction was one of annoyance. Though I recovered before saying anything to Sarah, I know that she still felt my annoyance – another whisper of shame for her.

    One of the most important things we can do for our leaders (both current and future) is to make sure they hear more whispers of worthiness than of shame. They need to know and hear and see the we, their parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, friends, colleagues, associates, peers, supervisors, students, etc. truly believe them to be worthy . . . just because they are.

    With gratitude for your sharing,


    • Richard,

      Thanks for weighing in with your fresh experiences!

      I think many fathers of 1950s-80s era children (not sure beyond that) were cauldrons of control and frustration, waiting to blow. They seemed to want order (and perhaps chafed under authority as Organization Men), and when an adolescent knocked over a lamp, spilled the milk, or pulled the dog’s tail, they could rise up in fury. The anger seemed out of place, out of scale, yet was never challenged or explained. So, there was a lot of shaming going on then. Mom’s too could shame – their sons and daughters. Perhaps they were acting out their own fears of insignificance as they cleaned and cooked and aged?

      I am glad my son has the license to say, “Dad, it seems like you’re over-reacting,” or as one of my readers reminded me of the line from Butch Cassidy and Sundance, “think you used enough dynamite, Butch?” I am glad I can remember my dad’s occasional over-reactions, and see my son’s incredulous look . . . and change course.

      I love your suggestion of “whispers of worthiness.” Everything – everything changes when we come from a standpoint of worthiness, of innate goodness, and build from there.

      Keep up the great work, Richard. I’m sure you made a big difference for men this weekend, helping them to lead with their best selves!


  • Yes, Dan, (as an ENTP I agree that) the greatest challenge we all have is answering the nature & nurture question: who am I and what is my life signature? BTW, “life signature” is defined as the tracing of the talents we are given and how we express them in our lives.

    “No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him.” James Russell Lowell

    Of course, it is up to each of us to figure out what our signature talents are (so we can build them into strengths) and learn what purpose have we been born to pursue.

  • I agree that fear is the biggest obstacle to leading and the biggest instigator of other things like lying, stealing, waging war on others. It’s also the greatest barrier to trust. One thing I appreciate about aging is the possibility of being less fearful – especially of looking bad or appearing foolish. I even feel less fearful of other people’s judgement, anger and disapproval. Would love to use that constructively to lead others. Thanks, Dan.

    • Katherine,
      You have earned your stripes! You have so much to add, so I hope you continue to loose the fears’ of others’ judgment!
      And I appreciate the connection you have made to so much of our worst behaviors!

  • You gave me alot to think about Dan. Not only can fear run my life, but it ever so present. It’s like a cameleon that can change and blend in. And when I least expect it, he starts running the show! I use powerful questions to allow him space to do his job, while keeping me in the driver seat!

  • 4/13/11 Hello Dan and readers,

    I have enjoyed Dan’s column for many months. I have been surprised at how many of the ‘Reading for Leading’ pieces applied to both my professional and personal life. Today’s was particularly inspiring. Even though I do not function as a supervisor at work, I realized that as one of the more experienced people in the agency I was definitely a leader. Looking toward retirement, I am paving the way for a new venture after 30 years of working for non-profits and public agencies. I am a mental health therapist and I have opened a private practice. Right now it is only part-time, so I have the security of my “day job” if not all of my available appointments are filled. Even still, the fear of doing something new, of having to think as a business person as well as a therapist sometimes shouts at me instead of whispers! I can also relate to others when they talk about the voice of shame. I used to think I didn’t deserve any type of success. So too, many of the people I have worked with over the years became ruled (or overruled!) by fear, anxiety and shame. I have been able to help some rewrite the script for that inner critic, and they in turn help me realize more about my own. Struggles and pain are powerful motivators for new ways of thinking and acting. Let’s hear it for positive thinking, success, and learning from the times we fall flat!

    • Janice,
      Good for you for taking on a new challenge. I like the way you’ve shared how you’ve helped clients “rewrite the script” and how that has in turn helped you. I’m so excited about teaching UC Berkeley business students in the fall. I expect they’ll teach me a ton!

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