Leaders Succeed When They Go Where Their Fear Tells Them to Avoid
Performing artists believe their professional growth relies on taking the roles that scare them most. Business leaders, take note.
There is an old improvisational adage, coined by the legendary theatrical instructor Del Close, that says strong performers are ones that "follow the fear." The concept is simple, when an idea or opportunity scares you, and is wrought with uncertainty, instead of running you should lean in and follow it, fully and completely.
For performers, following the fear isn't only a good idea, it truly represents a mandate for success. The act of getting on stage itself, for instance, is quite scary for most individuals. Creating a set, or a scene, or a story from scratch and hoping that an audience of strangers will find enjoyment from it? Well, that's downright terrifying. Still, talented performers across all art forms continue to extend themselves, embrace vulnerability and follow their fear. Society is undoubtedly better off as a result.
While "following the fear" is so deeply engrained in performance art, for entrepreneurs and executives, the concept has largely remained an idealistic approach to leadership. We frequently hear experts discuss the importance of overcoming failure and pursuing the unknown, but within organizations, employees are rarely encouraged to take real risks, or to try new initiatives that will have highly uncertain results. Certainly, being risk averse is logical, it takes years to build an impactful business, and just one bad decision to potentially destroy it. And our economy can't sustain a scenario where everyone is taking massive risks all of the time. We need stability as much as we need risk. However, for leaders to realize massive success, they have to be willing to leave the safety net of stability behind and follow their fears into the unknown.
Doing so can result in two different opportunities for success:
New applications of an existing skillset.
Most skills, particularly of the "softer" variety, including communication, creativity and problem-solving, are widely transferable across a myriad of occupations. Strong leaders are often able to parlay their soft skills into unexpected opportunities by maintaining an open mind and following the fear. In the creative world, there are so many examples of individuals who have realized professional success as a result of their on-stage aptitude.
One such person is Brian Volk-Weiss, a former comedic talent manager. Recognizing an opportunity to license and produce comedy albums, Volk-Weiss shifted away from management and created Comedy Dynamics, which has become "the largest independent producer and distributor of recorded comedy in North America" according to the organization's website. When I met with Brian recently at the Burbank, Calif., headquarters of his company, he was gearing up for the release of the third season of "Coming to the Stage," the first originally produced show for the brand in collaboration with Hulu.
Certainly, the jump from comedic talent management to comedic production isn't as wide as other career transitions may be, but the willingness to move beyond his comfort level has led Brian to unexpected success. While he absolutely could have been successful in his prior managerial career, today, he is able to help produce new and revolutionary content with talented artists like Aziz Ansari, Louis CK and late-night veteran Craig Ferguson. For that, he is equally fulfilled and bewildered. "It's really incredible, I'm humbled by the amount of talent that I'm able to work with on any given day. If you had told me years ago that this is where my career would end up, I wouldn't have believed it. It's more than just my passion, I get to help artists deliver on their passion, and bring their voices to audiences that may not otherwise get to hear them."
An untapped audience with similar goals.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to personal success is our own self-valuation. People tend to internally downplay their own intellect and perspective, even while outwardly projecting the opposite to their audiences. Why? Because if we are honest about ourselves, our motivations, our opinions, our fears, it leaves us exposed and vulnerable. While opening up to an audience in an honest manner may lead to criticism, it also is a fantastic way to engage them in more meaningful and impactful ways. Samantha Jayne is a primary example of someone who has tapped into a sizable audience through embracing vulnerability.
Just a few years ago, Jayne was living in New York City and working in the advertising industry. While her work was compelling, she wanted to create media that would emotionally engage people, not simply sell products and services. At the same time, she recognized that many of her friends and colleagues were feeling the same pressures and anxieties that she was experiencing. So, she started designing short poems targeted at the millennial audience. Pairing the poems with original artwork, she leaned on her advertising skillset to engage a wide audience using the Instagram handle, @quarterlifepoetry. Today, the account has north of 100,000 followers, and has led to Jayne's first book, entitled "Quarter Life Poetry: Poems for the Young, Broke & Hangry." On the surface level, opening up about everyday anxieties may not have motivated most people into action, but Samantha saw it as an opportunity to connect with others in an honest and emotional way.
How are you following the fear in your personal and professional endeavors? You'll be surprised at how doing so can lead to far more fulfilling opportunities.
Bill Connolly is a soft skills expert, improvisational comedian, and content marketer. He is author of two books including The Success Disconnect: Why The Smartest People Choose Meaning Over Money and Funny Business: Build Your Soft Skills Through Comedy, and a frequent speaker on branding, personal and professional development, and building soft skills through comedic methodology. Connolly leads content efforts for Olapic, a visual earned content company, and resides in Los Angeles. He is the co-host and producer of "Angry Landlord," a monthly comedy showcase in Times Square. Click here for more information.