Please note: Michael is currently out of the office and this post was scheduled before the current state of emergency.
The Deceptive Appearance of Fear
Fear masquerades as power. That’s how it acquires so many converts.
Having served in a variety of leadership roles in the past thirty-five years, this is one of those things that has become more and more apparent to me. Those who talk toughest are almost always the most fearful. And their fear is highly contagious, in part because it attracts others who see in the mask of toughness a perfect disguise under which they can be as frightened, anxious and terrified as they want while appearing to others courageous and strong.
This dynamic is disastrous for any group, any organization, and any family, because anxiety is never a good influence in decision-making.
One of my favorite films is Apollo Thirteen with Tom Hanks and Gary Sinese, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon. This movie about the famed space crew communicates the claustrophobic confines, the profound reality of a genuinely hostile exterior environment, and the necessity of leadership that is characterized by what Ernest Hemingway once described as “grace under pressure.”
If you’ve seen the movie you’ll remember the scene in which the carbon dioxide is rising and the oxygen depleting, and an argument that breaks out. The argument is rooted in the last minute replacement of a beloved and trusted crew member (played by Gary Sinese) with another (played by Kevin Bacon). And, as ill-luck would have it, the replacement was the one who was responsible for a routine task that immediately preceded, but didn’t cause, the malfunction in the spacecraft which nearly cost the crew their lives, and did cost them their shot at a moon landing.
The anger in the scene, the intense fury of the argument, is so violent you can almost taste the bitterness of Adrenalin in your own mouth. And it is a consequence of legitimate anxiety and fear. But, however legitimate the anxiety, if it spun out of control, it would have rendered the crew helpless. Jim Lovell (the commander played by Tom Hanks) stops the argument in its tracks. His resolute calmness in the face of imminent danger demands and makes room for an environment in which good decisions can be made. And they are the decisions that allow the crew to survive against astronomical odds.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher, once observed the perils of the open seas for those fleeing Vietnam. The “Vietnamese boat people” often overloaded the least seaworthy vessels we can imagine in their desperate attempts to escape Vietnam after the overthrow of the South.
Anyone who has ever been at sea knows its power, even when relatively calm. But when the oceans boil, when waves rise like mountains, even the safest vessels can feel rickety and small. When storms rose against the small boats overloaded with refugees, Thich said, panic often ensued, and the tiny crafts didn’t stand a chance. But, he observed, if only one person remained calm, if only one person kept his head, the boat and its passengers stood a chance.
Catastrophic thinking is popular because it creates an environment in which unhealthy leadership can exert itself. I’ve seen this happen in schools and in congregations, and in families and a variety of organizations. There are some personalities that seem to have an instinct for nurturing anxiety and creating chaos. But if one can simply introduce a word of calm perspective, often a small dose of historical experience, or a mere snippet of wisdom, especially with good humor, catastrophic thinking often simply melts.
Several years ago I was in a conversation with an administrative colleague in a school I then served. It was right before a potentially highly contentious faculty meeting. Like almost everything in the academic world, almost nothing of real consequence was at stake. That’s why the in-fighting in higher education is often so ugly. The only thing at stake is the relative power of the players.
My colleague came into my office with a sort of script. She had been carefully analyzing a variety of things that might be said, cases that might be made, arguments that could be launched, and ways to counter them. It wasn’t really a bad exercise on her part, except that it had only increased, rather than decreased, her anxiety.
She could tell, at some point in the conversation, that I was not “catching” her anxiety. She said, I thought this would be a valuable preparation for the meeting, but you hardly seem to be listening.
I’m listening, I said, but my instincts tell me that while all of the arguments you’ve anticipated are possible, what will actually be said will probably surprise us. It seems to me, then, that this exercise may only have the result of making us more anxious, which would cause us to be less capable of remaining calm enough to respond to whatever does arise.
So, what do you suggest we do to prepare for the meeting? she asked.
I’ve been doing it for about thirty minutes, I said. I’m sitting quietly, following my breath, observing myself and reflecting on what in me is getting hooked reactively by this situation. When I’m in the meeting, this practice of breathing calmly, observing my internal emotions, will serve me to remain open and non-reactive, better able to see the whole field of options, and unwilling to rush into something counterproductive. I’m preparing myself for the meeting, which, of course, is the only thing I have any control over.
I wish I could say that this had been my approach to leadership all along as a pastor, academic dean and seminary president, but it wasn’t. It emerged slowly over time after lots disastrous experiences in which I leapt at every baited hook that dropped into the water.
What I eventually realized was that the most powerful people in any situation are those who keep their heads. Sometimes they are the quiet ones. Sometimes they are the folks who raise at just the right moment just the right question. But always they are the people who have the courage not to indulge in tough talk and bluster to disguise their anxiety.
I think I’ve said this before, but it reminds me of what a Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor once told me in an emergency at the medical center where I was a chaplain intern: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” But, he might have added, “stand there calmly.”