I Froze and Didn’t Lead


I could not write Reading for Leading last night. Maybe it was just how upsetting that debate was. An AMERICAN presidential candidate called their opponent “the devil.” And said if he were president, “she would be in jail.” That is frightening. 

I have fearful deep emotional impulses about my great tribe, a.k.a., Americans.

But I am not afraid.  I feel fear.  I choose something different. What do you choose?

I think I feel fear the most, because there is fear running throughout the tribe like a virus!

The middle class and lower class are afraid that the American tribe (with its ruling and “lying” elites) is no longer committed to the American dream for all.

Trump supporters – many white, many non-college educated – are afraid they are losing America.

Evangelicals are afraid America’s losing her guiding morals and faith.

Muslims, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, LGBTQ people, women are afraid that they are not safe in Trump’s America. (Trump does not “get” how terrifying sexual predation is.)

Millions are afraid that America is “under attack” – from terrorism, illegal immigration, China, Russia.

Many are so afraid that they cling to their guns as their last defense.

The fundamental truth about this election is that nearly everything flows from fear.

Fear is literally stupid.  When we ARE fear (rather than aware of fear), we can only access the blunt tools of fight, flight or freeze.  Trump fights. Hilary seems also to act out of fear: fighting at times but also fleeing into her cocoon. What’s your natural instinct when you are threatened? We all have them.

We can, though, recognize fear, see that we have problems, real problems, and then choose finer tools with which to ENGAGE with the issues and each other. For example, tools like patience, civility, faith, and reason. 

I couldn’t finish my writing last night. I froze, because I was afraid my tribe (you, the readers) would not approve of what I was writing. I will trust you next week and send what I finished today. I’ll engage rather than freeze or flee.

it is through courageous engagement with those people and ideas which generate fear in us, that we

Lead with our best selves.



  • Aside from the one-sided approach to this article (only one candidate was mentioned and his supporters are portrayed as uneducated, which is not altogether true), I agree that fear is leading the hearts and minds of Americans. A co-worker asked me yesterday if I was still proud to be an American after the debate. My response was that I am always proud to be an American although I do not have faith in our elected leaders. My faith is in something much greater than any human being. I believe this country, or any country for that matter, would do itself well to have a moral compass. I am not asking everyone to believe exactly as I do, that would be hypocritical because anyone that believes in God also believes in free will. I however, want a respectable country for my children to grow up in. We are far from that at this point. It is disheartening that I whole heartedly believe there isn’t a single candidate deserving of my vote.

    • Sara,
      Good for you for maintaining your faith and belief in what we can be.
      I actually did mention Hilary (and what I take to be her instinctive responses to threat — fight and flight). And, though it’s easy bait, I did not attack Trump. I tried to choose my words carefully, talking about “some” of his supporters (as polls clearly indicate) and the responses of people to him. Let me know if you disagree. I’d like this column to remain profoundly non-partisan — able to use the data that’s in front of us all for learning purposes, not for advocating one political party or position, rather than another!

    • Although you struggled in writing your column Dan, I think this is one of your best.
      I too am saddened and disillusioned by Donald Trump’s vitriolic language, and by the lack of civility and issue-based discussion in the debates.
      Your point is well taken. We cannot give in to fear; we need to use compassion and reason, and we need to continue to make positive contributions to the political discourse.

  • Thank you Dan for sharing these powerful words. Recently, I posted on Facebook that I could only wish that Secretary Clinton would stop talking about Trump and give us some indication of what she would do to lead this country. I was so offended by the start of the debate when they both refuse to shake hands… I had never seen such disdain displayed from a “leader”. I felt so much anger that I posted on FB that I was not voting for the top of the ticket!

    After reading your post, I can understand fear much better and process my own fear. The thought of having a president that disrespects groups of people, including my group, is daunting. Fear brings out the worst in us and can at times invoke proactive responses which in turn can motivate positive change. I only hope that I can turn my fear of this election into positive change for my community!

  • Dan,

    The Trump “candidacy” frightens many of us who truly love our country. I believe however that when people vote next month, they will reject the divisive, sexist, and absolutely inane ideas put forth by this poor excuse of a failed real estate developer.
    You are truly a “man for others”….. Stay that way Dan and KEEP THE FAITH !

  • Disagree with your premises, Dan. It’s not fear; it’s disgust with the way the federal government has been operating for most of this century. Disgust centers around not only governmental incompetence, but the widespread corruption evident in many federal agencies and policies that go far beyond the limits of our Constitution. Imagine a state, for example, that says your kid cannot go to public school unless the parents assure the kid has gotten all of his/her shots, regardless of whether or not the vaccines have been proven safe. Here’s a partial list of other concerns people have about the direction of this country:
    • Stagnant wages of the middle class that haven’t grown in over 30 years nor kept pace with rising prices, especially the cost of health care.
    • Less economic security as part-time jobs replace full-time, employer-provided benefits diminish, and contract work replaces secure jobs with employers.
    • High youth unemployment, particularly among minorities in cities.
    • Great increase in the numbers of long-term unemployed and families that must rely on food stamps, many of them veterans.
    • Sharp increases in health insurance premiums for the majority of Americans with insurance in order to provide, along with government, subsidies for those without it.
    • Lack of confidence in finding employment as indicated by declining labor force participation rates for the adult population and the lowest since 1978 (62.8%). Among 20-24 years old the rate has dropped to about where it was in 1972 (70.8%); for 25-34 years old to where the rate was in 1982 (81.3%).
    • Half of recent college graduates either can’t find jobs or are underemployed. Meantime, college leavers have racked up over a trillion dollars in student loan debt. It’s hard to pay back loans without a decent-paying job.
    • Increasing skills gap where employers and educators have vastly different perceptions of whether high school and college grads are prepared for available jobs.
    • Continuing high rates of divorce and children born out of wedlock causing considerable family disruption and economic insecurity and which are great impediments to eliminating poverty.
    • A tax code that is unintelligible to most and which is frustrating America’s economic growth and need for fairness. Corporate tax rates are higher than in other developed countries driving many employers to locate their plants and jobs outside of the U.S.
    • Out of control drug culture perpetuated by pushers and users resulting in gang wars, people getting shot, overcrowding of prisons, delayed justice for those awaiting sentencing and high rates of recidivism. The consequences for many children, families and the entire economy are severe.
    • A judicial system that clearly favors the rich and discriminates against those not able to afford the best lawyers.
    • A housing sector with too many homes still in foreclosure or underwater, and a scarcity of homes driving up rental prices.
    • Grossly inadequate governmental response to fast growing neurological disabilities such as autism that have left the vast majority of affected children with divorced parents who are financially unable to properly care for them. School districts lack the talent, accountability systems and budget to properly educate these children and nobody is being held accountable. The result is an emerging tidal wave of adults with autism who cannot support themselves and will need care for the rest of their lives.
    • Similarly, the inability of those of modest means to care for adult family members with chronic illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s and cancer, whose rates has been increasing.
    • Food and water overloaded with toxins such as pesticides, hormones, prescription drugs, and hundreds of chemicals yet whose collective long-term impact on public health has rarely been studied. The research that is available suggests that these put many at risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and neurological disabilities such as autism among children (up 120% from 2000 to 2010) and attention deficit disorder (up 42% between 2003 and 2011).
    • Processed foods with ingredients that have little nutritional value, addict millions, contribute to rising obesity and chronic disease and thus raise family health care costs in the form of higher premiums and co-payments.
    • Genetically engineered/modified foods (GMOs) such as corn, soy and sugar beets that have not been fully tested sufficiently to confirm their safety. Most European and Asian countries have banned GMOs. In the U.S., processed food companies, corporate farmers and the GMO industry have lobbied successfully to stop food labeling that would enable shoppers to make informed choices of what to feed their families.
    • Outrageous incompetence, neglect or corruption in many of the federal agencies that were designed to preserve our health and welfare:
    o Veterans Administration hospital waiting lists, dishonesty to cover it up and malfeasance in use of funds.
    o Conflicts of interest in Center for Disease Control studies of vaccine safety
    o Bungled roll out of the Healthcare.com website in its first year
    o Guns going to Mexican drug cartels courtesy of our Department of Justice
    o Illegal admission of thousands of undocumented children who recently crossed our southern border and put pressure on states to provide them with services.

    • And finally, radical Islamic terrorism and tyrannical regimes that have spawned little understood and extended wars in faraway places, making air travel a nightmare let alone a tsunami of suicides and mental illness among our returning veterans (e.g. 11-20% of veterans from the recent Iraq war have Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome).

    • Barry, I think you make my point better than I do. Your first 9 points are the same ones I am making, the proof points of how terrified people are. Although they may be “disgusted” (presumably by government, per most of your latter points) which I take to be your initial disagreement with me, I would argue that the data points you offer stimulate fear more than disgust. I would suggest that they are “disgusted” BECAUSE they are afraid, and it is utterly normal to seek to find the causes and to blame. It’s easy to be disgusted by someone else’s incompetence, but show me someone who is disgusted by their OWN! This is NOT to say there isn’t fault, nor that we shouldn’t seek causes. There is fault, and there are causes. But the EMOTIVE social dimension is, I believe, fear, not disgust.

      Also, I’d ask: does the data generate the feelings? Or do the feelings generate the data?
      I’d argue both.

      Most of us live in WAY BETTER times than our grandparents, great-grandparents and 90% of the world. Many of us (myself included) live in way better economic straits than our parents. So, we can choose which data to examine. If we feel afraid — due to REAL concerns AND to a group fear that continues to spread – we may point to the sobering data. If we feel hopeful (about our ability to survive, be safe, and adapt), we will be more open to the positive data, e.g., 20 million people who didn’t have health insurance now have it; health costs have been going up for a long time in large part due to real rises (e.g., in end of life care), etc. etc.
      Thanks for offering your thoughts here.

  • Dan,
    In Rising Strong, authored by Brene’ Brown (ISBN 978-0-8129-9582-4), Brene’ Brown talks about Living BIG. BIG stands for Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity. She states (paraphrasing):
    What boundaries do I need to put in place so I can work from a place of integrity and extend the most generous interpretations of the intentions, words, and actions of others? Brene’s definition of integrity is: “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” Living BIG is saying: “Yes, I’m going to be generous in my assumptions and intentions while standing solidly in my integrity and being very clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

    I can never be sure about the intentions of others, and I believe that assuming the best about other people is a game changer for my life. But throughout the recent discourse of this campaign, I am left with disbelieve about what I hear. I did not listen to or watch the latest debates. I have been too disappointed about the campaign in recent weeks to listen more to the assault against the fabric of community and society. Instead I have chosen to cling to persistent hope and prayer that our country will not be led further astray from the values and principles upon which this country’s founders and immigrants faithfully brought with them to its shores. I recognize that treatment of Native Americans, and against African Americans was in many cases greviously wrong. That’s part of the picture we must struggle to resolve and heal. But as Brene’ Brown states, “Hope happens when we can set goals, have the tenacity and perseverance to pursue those goals, and believe in our own abilities to act.” We must not be complacent with our role and responsibility in leadership of this country. We also must work from a place of integrity and strive to lead for the common good. I believe that what’s been broadcasted by our media is the hype and frenzy of disintegration of society and we need to return to the moral and Christian fight for this country and the values of our founders. We must not lose sight of the Christian values which faith brought to the shores of this country. We must not deny values of others. We must not allow corruption, deceit and evil to creep into and invade our society. And so I accept my own vulnerability and embrace the grit of my integrity: I courageously and boldly reject the assault against my sense of justice, equity, and reason as is witnessed in the recent developments and statements of the unfolding campaign. I not only accept my vulnerabilities, I accept my failures. I believe Brene’ Brown put it well: “Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.” In contrast, Mr. Trump appears to be unable to be humble, lead for the common good, or promote reconciliation. His statements do not embrace leading for the common good but instead indicate to me a desire to promote only a smaller segment of society. His statements are arrogant, divisive, and exclusive.
    We must examine our integrity and values as we search for our next presidential leader. And we must indeed lead from our own chair with our best self.

    • Wow, Malcolm, you got inspired. Brene Brown is a wonderful guide to mature adult living, making choices and making a difference. Thanks for sharing her — and your — views!

  • Thank you Dan for a sane analysis of the situation. I do think all media, TV, radio and news outlets have played into the hands of Trump. On purpose or inadvertantly the constant coverage of his outrageous remarks all play into his hands for notice. He has enlarged our vocabulary as he is a textbook case of a demogogue, a narcissist and a sociopath. My hope is that the majority of voting Americans will see through the sham. I also hope that our Republican leaders will recognize the damage of focusing their energies the last eight years on discrediting our president and put some energy on lifting up a competent reliable leader. We need a two party system with leaders who are more along the line of servant leaders, not wannabe monarchs or dictators.

  • Dan – Thanks for the inspiring message. I copied the last line of your message and plan to keep it displayed in front of me and will share it liberally. The most compelling part of your message today was the illustration of using “the tools in the tool box” well. It seems that public Leaders either do not recognize these tools or fear using them. Not that they fear the tool, but fear the backlash for having used the specific tool. All in all, fear now must be recognized as one of the greatest motivators and disablers in our society. Thanks for these reminders and thought starters.

    • Bob, thanks for your comment. Love this line of yours: “fear now must be recognized as one of the greatest motivators and disablers in our society.”
      Like our inner critic that drives, drives, drives us, fear (going to back to our most basic fear for survival) is a powerful FORCE. But though it’s a great source of fuel, it’s a pretty lousy steering mechanism.

  • Again, Dan, you challenge our strengths. As any Leader should. An American will make a difference by seeking and promoting solutions. Whining as a populist is a losers game!

  • Dan, by forging through your fear of what your readers would think is substance that leading is taking healthy risks and standing behind what you believe it all the while refraining from attacking others for different beliefs.

  • Well said, Dan, as always, but this one was “over the top”!
    And, as one would expect from your readers, the comments so far have been very on point with no vitriol, as so many internet comments tend to have.

    PBS had a revealing program a little over a week ago on the background, almost from birth, of both major candidates that was fascinating.
    It showed what makes both of them tick.

    The definition of megalomania is “a condition or mental illness that causes people to think that they have great or unlimited power or importance”.
    Unfortunately, both of them fit that definition to a T.

    Keep up the good work, Dan. We miss you and your wife here in Michigan. Our loss is California’s gain.

    • Jim,
      Thanks for the compliment. And I totally agree with you that I have the greatest readers. I so appreciate the exchanges that we have here. As far as megalomania, it would be very interesting to look at the verbatim comments of both candidates, particularly looking for two things. First, how often do they speak about their own human limitations? Their ignorance? Their uncertainty? Their mistakes? Their learning? And number 2 how often do they speak of others and the need for others? Do they speak in the first person singular all the time? Or in the plural? Do they admit other’s strengths and capacities and Independence and drive? Or do they tend to either ignore or diminish others? I suspect one would see a big difference between the two candidates, but perhaps I’m wrong. Love to see someone do the analysis, wouldn’t you? Best, Dan

  • Hi Dan
    As your disinterested UK cousin I’ve watched both debates from Britain & am none the wiser about either candidate’s policies. I pity you, what a choice of numpties to be President. If these are the 2 best candidates the USA can produce [or should I say “money can buy?”] what is wrong with democracy in the land of the “free” & home of the “brave”. Trump is a nasty joke on the world.& Hillary appears like a retread of Bill. Yikes I’m sure sanity will prevail & Nov 9th won’t see a nation in meltdown.
    Love to all the family,

  • Good set of thoughts, Dan. Fear is a wonderful thing to manipulate people with. I remember that Barak Obama was being called the Anti-Christ when he ran the first time. He is disappointment as an Anti-Christ. Hillary Clinton gets called the devil. I expect she will approach that standard as well at President Obama did with being the Anti-Christ.

    I do not see Hillary Clinton as a person going into a cocoon. When she took off time from public appearances, I took it as a way to put Donald Trump more in the spot light, taking the political risk that Trump would again fail, and fail many times to make the right statements. So that any news ( the risk is assuming that it would be negative news) about him would not have Clinton to compete with. She wanted him to get the attention. It is a trap. Trump loves attention. She wanted the election to be about Trump and not about her. She is not Trump.

    Hillary Clinton will understand fear and its immoral use by Trump. Her best response is to proceed with confidence in herself and her principals. To put those forth to the public and let Donald Trump be Donald Trump.

  • You froze and couldn’t resist giving a political preach. You led, but you just chose to lead in your true passion – liberal politics. Funny, very little said about the worst democrat candidate in ages, Hillary Clinton. Even democrats can’t stand her but they get in line too well to reject her. Corrupt beyond imagination from a political “dynasty” Americans just want to go away and take the blue dress with them. It isn’t fear, it’s disgust. Disgust with a political duo that has cheated, stole, lied, lied and lied again about their lies to the point of folly.This “post’ was nothing more than a liberal diatribe desperately hoping to win a very losable election and using a convenient audience that never asked for or wanted to be steered into politics from a leadership message. But one thing about liberals is they politicize everything. But they do certainly have fear – fear that they miss an opportunity to preach liberalism to a captive audience. That fear got the best of you. I think you should be ashamed for crossing this line and you owe an apology.

    • John, thanks for your courage in writing. It seems I triggered your disgust ( the emotion which you suggest, more than fear, describes what’s happening in this election cycle). Some psychologists believe disgust is its own innate emotion. I think it’s actually related to fear. We feel disgust when something is sickening to us, in other words we’re afraid we will be sickened by it. I would suggest that many people are disgusted by Clinton, as you point out. I certainly wouldn’t deny that. Others are disgusted by Trump. You certainly wouldn’t deny that. But honestly, I think people are afraid of both of them, and afraid of their implications. Left and right fears it’s losing control in so many ways, and these two figures pose as enormous threats to them.
      I find your words hurtful. I strive to be balanced, and in 15 years of writing every week, a free column by the way, I have perhaps written about politics three or four times. The way you describe me, as though you know me, as though you know my true colors, feels offensive to me. It hurts that you don’t take what I’ve written at face value. If you did, you would see I’m much more of a social psychologist, and at times a theologian, than a partisan liberal. You might ask yourself why you couldn’t see that. You blame me for being partisan, yet did you even notice that I talked about Hillary’s instincts for fight and flight, as well as Trump’s. Or were you perhaps so convicted in what you believe, so overwhelmed with disgust in the way that I triggered you, that you completely missed that line. I was not talking about Trump anyway. If you read again you’ll notice I was reading about people’s responses to Trump. Not suggesting that they were correct. Only suggesting that that was what they felt.
      I don’t suspect you’re interested in my coaching, but as we’re writing this in a public space to each other, I would encourage you to ask about the emotions that you felt. In the same way that your words hurt me, apparently I hurt you, enough so that you think I owe you and or my readers an apology. You responded in what to you is a very logical way. Yet, what you apparently felt is that somehow I was attacking you, moderates or conservatives, or others. When we feel attacked, our brains wash with cortisol, and we’re not so rational. Perhaps I’m guilty of this at this very moment.
      Happy to hear any further thoughts you have. Thanks again for writing. Respectfully,

  • Dear Dan, One of your best articles. For the past 50 years I have been saying that “fear” drives prejudice and dysfunction in our society. Unfortunately, some of our politicians use it to their advantage to gain support from those either disenfranchised or uneducated. This election only highlights the use of fear to sway voters. My anxiety level has been higher than ever for the past year as we listen to the political rhetoric and make a decision to choose the next leader of our already great nation.

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