Committing to Act, Preparing to Lead


I have asked Ashton Fandel to write this week. She contributes to our team with great insight. She’s currently the head reader for a Berkeley Haas leadership course, where she gives amazing counsel to aspiring Berkeley undergrads. I know she’d appreciate your constructive comments!

“Class, what are the ‘Two Evil Twins of Self-Defense?” my kind-eyed martial arts instructor would frequently ask as my young classmates and I drilled self-defense moves. We would pause from parrying away jabs and evading oncoming lunges. A hand would shoot up, and the eager student would knowingly recite, “Hesitation and Indecision.” 

While I was seven years-old at the time, this lesson has lived on in my mind. In martial arts, we drilled a movement again and again–lunge, evade, reset, repeat–so that we could avoid those dreaded “Evil Twins” in the face of a threat. No need to pause, or mull over: Do I move? Do I freeze? By mindfully preparing, we had already committed to a decision to act. 

The lesson extends beyond self-defense. In the dojo, preparation helped in avoiding a physical threat. In the dimension of leadership, preparation helps in avoiding the largely mental threats of anxiety, doubt, overwhelm, or thoughtlessness. 

When presented with the opportunity to take action—e.g. devote attention to others, speak up, take time for personal care—it’s so easy to succumb to the “Two Evil Twins.” The anxiety of pulling ourselves away from the task at hand, fear of suffering embarrassment, or overwhelm of potentially falling behind leads us to hesitate. Indecisiveness exhausts us: Do I have time to listen? Should I say something? And once those nefarious Twins have crept in, we start to decide that maybe…we can’t do it. 

At our best, we practice foresight. By acknowledging and preparing for the opportunities that approach, we can move past the hesitation and indecision that holds us back from leading with our best selves. Practicing mindful preparation signals to ourselves that we can, and plan, to follow through.

I acknowledge that preaching the value of preparation seems a dark irony in the current era. Leading an organization through complex change isn’t a move that can be drilled to muscle memory; navigating this unprecedented job market is beyond intimidating to plan for; juggling the demands of home leaves little time for thinking beyond the immediate. 

In spite of, and perhaps even more because of these broad stressors and unknowns, start at the scale of what you can spare a moment to prepare for. What are the important relationships, ongoing routines, or upcoming events in your life? And how can you set a plan, so that you’re ‘showing up’ and leading in a way that you are proud of? Perhaps this looks like:

  • Blocking off time (before the week fills up) to have a check-in with an employee that might be struggling. 
  • Setting a reminder to take a walk before dinner so that you have a clear mind when you’re with your family.
  • Resolving to participate more in your upcoming online class.
  • What opportunities to practice mindful preparation exist for you?

And then after identifying those opportunities, take the next step to strengthen your defense against the Evil Twins. Attach specifics; in the case of the 3 examples above: 

  • Think of a few open-ended questions that your co-worker might like to be asked. 
  • Pick your walking route. 
  • Write out some points that you feel comfortable contributing in a class discussion.

These minor decisions, made in advance, can have exponential payoff. There’s far less room for you to hesitate to reach out to your co-worker, or hold back from speaking up, because the decision to act is made, and your approach considered. By preparing, you’re better enabled to show up and follow through with confidence, control, and care.

If you are already an expert in planning and preparing, then perhaps you can take from this that your efforts matter, and have likely helped others as well. And if it’s something that you might benefit from practicing, remember to start small and be kind to yourself. As we all are coming from different strengths, and are learning how to better

Lead with our best selves!

  • Well stated. One , including me, tends to procrastinate and react at the moment. Works sometimes but planning ahead as suggested is wise counsel.

  • Very well written and appreciated. Thoughtful preparation makes us all better, and relieves stress. Thank you.

  • Magnificent, inspiring and particularly timely given the inclination toward inertia in these troubled and uncertain times. Thank you, Ashton, for your insights, and thank you, Dan, for inviting her to share them with us.

  • Since 2015 after attending his class at Berkeley I have been reading Dan Mulhern’s weekly articles and it has helped me immensely . It has given me perspective and a better understanding of things happening all around. Thanks for inviting Ashton as I was facing a difficult time searching for the road ahead in these uncertain times . And I have got the answer from her- mindful preparation is the key. Thanks a ton – sending you both a virtual hug

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