Imagine standing shoulder to shoulder in a line with 20 people. You can see your colleagues on your left and right. Now take 5 steps forward. Everyone else is behind you now. Do you feel safer or more vulnerable?
Let’s say you are in the line and someone else takes 5 steps forward. Are you feeling inspired or left behind?
Part 3: Guardian of the Open Heart
Throughout human evolution, our chances of survival increased when we lived in community. We are social beings. To be ostracized meant peril. Conforming to the social norms meant safety. Our schools, religious institutions, military, and community organizations all encourage acculturation and adherence to the culture in power. We are always safest in the center, not on the peripheral edges, of a group.
Our Limbic System located in the mid-brain immediately triggers feelings of anxiety if we have a thought of danger to ourselves or our group. We feel anxiety in the mid-line of the body, in the chest (the place of the physical heart) and gut (like butterflies in the stomach). Anxiety is often a sudden gripping feeling when adrenaline shoots into the nervous system.
Anxiety makes us pull back from potential danger.
How then can we make progress? How do we step out and lead when everything inside us wants to stay safe?
We are hard-wired with a feeling system designed to manage anxiety about stepping into the unknown and into possible dangers ahead. Because of our acculturation, anxiety is also activated when we think we don’t have the support of others, that we won’t be loved, accepted, or approved by others in our social networks. Our built-in protection mechanisms can be thought of as the second of our 3 guardians. The Guardian of the Open Heart.
As a child I was always running off on my own to play and explore. It was fun! But when I went to school I was taught the “buddy system” to always have someone with me so we could watch out for each other, that there was “safety in numbers,” and was admonished “don’t go out alone!”
When scaling Devil’s Tower National Monument with my eldest son Ben (then age 17), I felt fine when I was climbing. But standing on a ledge with Ben and our guide, 500 feet up the side of the mountain, my anxiety spiked when they got too close to the edge. Everything in me wanted to pull them back to a safer spot. Even though we had all the ropes, harnesses, helmets, and gear for the technical climb, the emotional response to potential danger overrode my intellectual “knowing” of safety.
Looking straight down the equivalent height of a 70-story building was daunting enough. It seemed crazy to have put myself into such a predicament, but there we were. And the only way to get to safety was to finish the climb and rappel down. That’s the team’s mission. My guardian had to become an ally, feeling that right now I’m safe, I have to take the next small step to complete my mission.
Courage and Vulnerability
Striving for the highest expression of our business success, the fulfilment of our team’s mission, or our life’s purpose, means pressing on into the unknown future—when everything inside us feels anxiety and wants to pull back. The act of stepping forward requires courage, a word of French origin that literally means “Full of Heart.”
Confronting the Guardian of the of Open Heart is necessary to effectively change our results.
The brighter future trying to emerge in our world calls us to live-whole heartedly in the face of uncertainty and peril. We must open ourselves to the emotional risks of stepping to the edge of the ledge and taking another step up.
Progress requires a willingness to be exposed, to be vulnerable, to risk the criticism of others who feel a natural resistance to changing the status quo. As unreasonable as it might feel, there is a power in vulnerability that researchers have shown is essential to all progress. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, the reasonable person adapts to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable person.
You must be unreasonable.
Here is a starting place for encountering the second of our 3 Guardians of Change. This process of “dynamic steering” helps leaders effectively facilitate change.
Let’s Collaborate: If you have blazed new trails and climbed to great heights through innovation and courage, what strategies can you share that worked for you and your teams?
In the next and final blog post in this series, we will examine the last of the 3 guardians that comprise our built-in resistance to change.
© Paul R. Scheele, Ph.D. | Scheele Learning Systems | All Rights Reserved