Fear: A Leader's User Guide

Standing strong in your leadership can be scary.

Wielding power responsibly -- with all the messiness that this entails -- can shake the most confident amongst us. 

I have the enormous privilege of working with some pretty fierce leaders in my coaching & consulting practice. Let me tell you a common topic of conversation: facing fear.

When we fear the responsibilities of leadership, our inner dialogue can go something like this:

Me? I'm responsible for all this? I have to raise this budget? I have to fire this person? I have to figure out a way through this intractable morass? I have to recreate this astounding success next year? Little old me? 

Yes, you.  But here's what I've learned from talking to many, many leaders -- and what I want you to remember:

You are not alone.
You are not the only leader who is daunted by the awesome responsibility you hold for other people's livelihoods, by the ambitious vision you've laid out for your organization, or by the budget you have to raise.  Most leaders are humbled by these undertakings.  And yet.  They get up and do the work, make change, and build the leadership of others along the way.  And so will you.

You can welcome the fear.
Fear is not something we need to push away, to resist with force (that never works that well anyway).  Believe it or not, we can welcome our fear.  That's right, I said WELCOME it.  Hang in with me here.  

Welcoming the fear lets us soften to it rather than freeze up.  It lets us check out the fear, to dialogue with it:

Hey fear, what are you really about? Are you telling me something useful? Or are you a message from the past, not so helpful now? Not so helpful?  Great -- I'll keep on my merry way then, and do what I need to do. Just part of my process? Fantastic, thanks for showing up.  I'll be moving forward, and you'll be going soon.  

I've been practicing this welcoming approach with big decisions, big events and difficult conversations -- things that have historically made me lose some sleep.  Here's what I've found: the fear doesn't go away, but when I welcome it I can live with it and learn from it.  
Try it.  You may learn that you have nothing to fear at all.

The 6 Apps that keep my business (& life) running

The 6 Appsthat keep mybusiness (&


"What programs & apps do YOU use to stay on top of it all?"

I get this question all the time.

For me to really adopt a new technology as a favorite and trusted part of my routine, it has to do three things:

  • It has to increase my sense of Peace about my work, by helping me reduce worry or stress.
  • It has to help me stay Productive by encouraging me to focus on the most important stuff.
  • It has to help me Perform at my best -- it can't be so complex it slows me down.

Here are the 6 programs and apps I use daily to keep things running:

  • Trello (Task and Project Management).  Trello is an elegant and visual platform for task, project and list management.  I like it because at its simplest, it is like an electronic version of a white board, or of stickies on a wall. But it has much, much more to offer -- sharing, tagging, checklists, attachments... it is remarkably robust.
  • Self Control (Distraction Blocker).  Self Control is software for Mac that allows you to assign certain websites to a personal blacklist and then block your own access to them for a particular period of time. I use it for blocking Facebook and Twitter when I need to concentrate - whether for 20 minutes or 8 hours.
  • Coffitivity (Focus Enhancer).  If you, like me, find you are incredibly productive in the noisy din of a coffee shop, Coffitivity may revolutionize your experience of work at your desk.  Visit the website or start up the app and you will be treated to the familiar background noise of a coffee shop -- soft conversations, clatter of dishes, espresso machine, laughter.  I've been known to use it in coffee shops when nearby patrons are too loud for my liking.
  • Evernote (Digital Capture & Organization Tool).  Evernote has a million and one uses, but I use it as a digital filing cabinet.  Into Evernote I throw articles, recipes, business brainstorms, books I want to read, vacation ideas, and a million other things.  When I need to find something, the easy tagging system and the powerful search make it a piece of cake.
  • Streak (Gmail enhancer).  Streak's main selling point is that it provides CRM (customer relationship management) within Gmail. But I use it for two of its additional features:  1) I can write an email now and schedule it to send later and 2) I can save "snippets" of canned text to insert into emails rather than retyping the same info over and over (for example, I've created a snippet containing my conference call number, so I don't have to go searching for that every time I want to include it in a message to someone).
  • TripIt (Travel Organizer).  I'm increasingly on the road and travel documents can be hard to keep at hand.  TripIt organizes all of my reservation info (flights, hotel, car rental) and anything else I want on my itinerary in one place.  To add something, I simply forward the reservation email to plans@tripit.com and it shows up in my itinerary.  I can also easily share itineraries with loved ones.

What are your favorite programs & apps for maintaining your productivity, performance and peace of mind?


How Work Flexibility Can Help You Maximize Your Leadership


I recently guest-blogged for 1 Million for Work Flexibility about how flexible work can serve as part of a leader's toolkit. Here's what I wrote:

In my role as a leadership coach to nonprofit professionals, there is one challenge I hear from my clients over and over, and it goes something like this: “I am so busy putting out fires that I don’t have time to focus on the really important stuff—planning, big picture thinking and developing new ideas.” For leaders, having the time and space to connect the dots and think big is not just a luxury—it’s crucial to personal and organizational success.

So how can leaders create this much-needed spaciousness?  

[Read the rest at WorkFlexibility.org]

photo credit: thinkstockphotos.com

The Daily Coffee Check-In

'I'm too busy to plan' is one of the most unhelpful things we tell ourselves when we're overwhelmed with work. By buying into this mistaken belief we deny ourselves what we most need when we're buried in work: a little space to gain some control, perspective, and relief. It can take as little as 15 minutes to rise above the chaos and map out your day, and you don't need to lock yourself in a room with a whiteboard to make it happen.  I've written before about the morning meeting with yourself, which involves taking the first few minutes at your desk to get a handle on what's ahead.

Starting even earlier in her day, a client of mine does her daily planning ritual each morning during her subway commute. She calls it The Daily Coffee Check-In.  A parent who directs a national program on 3-day-a-week work schedule, she has to be strategic with her time in order to accomplish her work without it spilling over into her non-work days.  So, every workday, as she juggles her coffee on the train, she fills out this checklist:

The Daily Coffee Check-In:

1) What’s lingering in my mind?

2) What do I need for meetings today?

3) What must I accomplish that can’t wait until the next day in the office?

4) When can I devote time to this? Should I reschedule anything?

5) When do I need to leave today? What time may I have tonight/tomorrow if absolutely necessary?

With these five questions, she enters her day with clear intention, a sense of her bigger picture, and a plan for getting her work done.

Inspired by my client, I set out to design my own Coffee Check-In.  I came up with this:

Sarah's Coffee Check-In:

1) What's on my schedule today?  How do I need to prepare for each appointment?

2) Which non-urgent project(s) do I want to make some progress on today?

3) What must I do today in order to feel today was a success?

4) When will I take a lunch break?  When will I complete my work for the day?

5) What one thing have I been putting off that I will finally address today?

What questions would be on your morning coffee check-in list?

Multitasking is a Myth

  As mobile technology has become more portable and more powerful, we are able to do many more things (phone calls, texting, watching movies) in more contexts (driving, walking down the street, waiting in line) than ever before.  Multitasking should be at an all-time high.

But as some recent books about the nature of attention have made clear, multitasking is largely a myth.  When we think we are multitasking, we are not so much doing two things at once as we are rapidly shifting our attention back and forth between those two things.  And all that shifting dramatically depletes our functioning, making it hard to do either thing efficiently or well.

Here's a quick experiment  to prove this point.  Write the phrase "MULTITASKING IS A MYTH" on a piece of paper, but intersperse the numbers 1 - 17 after each letter (M 1 U 2 L 3 T 4... etc.).  Now, write out the same phrase  as you normally would - no numbers in between - and when you finish that, write out the sequence of numbers 1 - 17.  See the difference? [Experiment adapted from this guy.]

While there are some "mindless" tasks that we can do while doing something else (folding laundry in front of the TV, for example) most everyday activities require much more focussed attention than you might think.

Ever turn down the music in your car while looking for parking?  Surf the internet while on a conference call and then realize you haven't been listening for the last 5 minutes?  These are examples of the natural limitations of our attention.  Better to give in to these limits and do one thing at a time, well.

Turn your screens off. Turn off your monitor, close your laptop and stop trying to read the headlines or catch up on email while you're on a conference call.  Be on the call.

Stop the dinging, pinging, flashing email alerts. For goodness sake, if you're trying to get focused work done, turn off your email alerts so you aren't getting pulled into whatever shows up in your inbox.  If you have to stay in the loop while you're getting other things done, schedule a 10 minute email break at the end of every hour, or better yet, every 90 minutes.

Remember that multitasking has consequences. Typos in work emails can make a bad impression, a distracted tone of voice can be read as standoffish, and of course texting while driving can lead to accidents.  There are very real costs to trying to push beyond the rather modest limits of our attention.

Next time you are tempted to split your attention between two or more tasks, ask yourself if the email, relationship, or your safety is important enough to you to get your full attention.

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