Last weekend I listened to a four-CD program by an American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. Titled “Smile at Fear,” the program, which was recorded at one of her retreats, counsels, among other things, that the process of surmounting fear must begin by recognizing, understanding and, indeed, even embracing that fear, rather than scurrying around trying to block it out and looking for escapes from the discomfort fear can cause. I know some of you are about to quit reading this post, fearing that I am caught up in one of those beginning-of-the-new-year self-improvement projects and you’ve got enough pressing issues to handle without enduring a touchy-feely lecture from me. Not to worry. No lecture is on the way. I just want you to think about how fear can impede – and occasionally dramatically sabotage – your chief executive leadership. You might not be interested in exploring Pema’s Chogyam Trungpa school of Buddhist teaching, but you should certainly be keenly aware of the insidious nature of fear when it goes unrecognized and unaddressed.
Let me share a real-life example of a kind of pathology I’ve seen over the years that I’m pretty sure is fear-based and driven. A highly capable superintendent who is technically at the top of her game, having mastered key chief executive functions like strategic planning, stakeholder relations, and financial management, finds herself in a tense, possibly even career-threatening, relationship with her school board. It’s not because she lacks governance knowledge – indeed, she’s a true expert in the field – or that she is opposed to strong board leadership – indeed, she welcomes it, or thinks she does. But when her board’s planning and development committee comes up with the idea of a half-day work session focusing on generating practical ways to make board members’ involvement in the annual budgeting process more substantive, meaningful, and productive, she resists mightily, despite the fact that the committee has the backing of all board members, who have come to believe that they don’t really make much difference in the budget process. Her response to the committee’s idea? A visible tightening up combined with a lecture on the dangers of what she calls “micro-management.” “It would be opening Pandora’s Box,” I heard her say to her board president in a meeting involving the three of us. She went on to explain that budgeting was essentially an administrative function, and there’d be chaos if board members immersed themselves in the nitty-gritty financial details. “The next thing you know, they’ll be quibbling about itsy-bitsy travel expenses,” she warned her president.
This story had a happy ending, I’m pleased to report, since the superintendent – with plenty of encouragement from me and her board president – came to see that her tremendous need for control had turned – in her eyes – a very reasonable request for more meaningful board involvement into a threat that must be countered. Instead of creatively thinking through ways the board could be involved in shaping the annual budget without really falling into micro-management, she’d dug in her heels, in the process alienating the majority of board members and jeopardizing her working relationship with the board. Recognizing that she’d tremendously exaggerated the threat, she worked closely with the planning and development committee in identifying points in the budget preparation process when board member input could make a difference (for example, holding an operational issues session before any numbers were put on paper).
Over a drink one evening after a really productive and satisfying session with the committee, this superintendent confided that the experience had led to an epiphany of sorts to her: that her need for control really was based on fear – in this case a powerful gut fear of being vulnerable that she hadn’t paid much attention to until this mini-crisis. She said she understood where the fear came from (she didn’t want to share these intimate details), and she wasn’t really sure she could ever really completely expunge the fear or the related control urge, but she did know that she could monitor her feelings closely to prevent the urge from sabotaging her relationship with her board.
So I’m not recommending that you set out on a course of Buddhist meditation, but I am counseling you to be self-aware and vigilant, knowing what you fear and how that fear, if it goes unrecognized, might limit what you achieve as chief executive of your district.