How One Leader Conquered His Fear By Channeling Curious George

Edvard Munch “The Scream”

H.A. Rey’s Curious George

“It’s like I’m always vigilant, walking around tense all the time, bracing for an attack, ready to defend myself,” said David, a former client. He was not describing being in a tough neighborhood at night, but roaming the floors of the start-up where had worked for a number of years and had risen through the ranks to a leadership role. He was shocked to recognize his emotional state for what it was: pervasive fear.

This was surprising to him because work didn’t look scary. The company culture was somewhat chaotic, but mostly positive. David trusted and respected the majority of his colleagues, and he had good relationships throughout the organization. But as a boy, he had been taught by his father to be on guard always, and to defend himself vigorously, lest he be seen as weak. This worked pretty well on the playground and prevented him from getting picked on or bullied. As he progressed through college and business school, he was seen as strong and confident, and at work his colleagues described him as having a commanding demeanor and presence.

But this vigilance had a major downside. It made David over-reactive to questions and challenges. When presenting, if someone asked a question, he defended as if it were an attack on his reputation, sometimes shutting people down. And if this weren’t bad enough, there was another, more insidious, side to this fear. Because David believed that he needed to appear strong, he had a hidden commitment (see my previous blog on Immunity to Change) to not looking weak that led him to engage in other self-protective strategies. Since he equated questions and criticism with threat, his battle strategy was to limit his areas of vulnerability.Thus, he seldom advanced an idea that he had not fully vetted and scripted. And he frequently avoided broadly communicating his vision and plans, because the more he put out there, the more he could be criticized and judged as weak. He was playing small without even realizing it.

Intellectually, David knew he was not in danger, but he was behaving as if there were an existential threat lurking in every meeting. He had developed a bunker mentality, hunkering down to reduce the surface area vulnerable to attack. As a result, he under-communicated his vision and missed opportunities to build alignment with cross-functional colleagues and motivate the team. He refrained from sharing his uncertainty and missed out on important input from his partners. David was holding back, and it was hurting his effectiveness as a leader.

So what did he do? He cultivated a powerful antidote to fear — it’s not courage, it’s curiosity. When presenting an idea either in writing or verbally, his habitual approach had been: “How do I present my vision as unassailable and persuasive?” His new approach was: “How can draw out  my colleagues to help improve the vision and share ownership?” and “How can I elicit their questions and objections so that we can build an awesome shared vision?” He started small, with his written communications. He prefaced an email update with an invitation for questions, comments and suggestions. The response was mostly positive and appreciative, and David was able to welcome the few questions and suggestions he received. Then he started inviting questions and suggestions in low stakes presentations. And when questions or objections came in, he learned to meet each challenge with curiosity: “What are you concerned about? What do you think would make it better? How would you frame the issue? What is your vision?” The ensuing discussions provided useful insights and helped gain buy-in. Not scary. Cool.

Over time, David found he was able to use curiosity in many situations very effectively. Sometimes he would catch himself slipping back into bunker mentality, but as soon as he noticed, he would take a breath and arm himself with curiosity rather than defense and justification. The result? Better communication, improved trust, and increased alignment.