The Reluctant Leader in All of Us
Don't think you have what it takes? You're not alone. But you're stronger than you think.
Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome by Juan Antonio Ribera, 1806
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
You of course recognize that as the first sentence in the Declaration of Independence, one of the founding documents of the United States.
In the early days of forming republics, honor and integrity are necessary to set us on the right path. Society looks for persons of character who aren't interested in power themselves, calling upon them to serve the greater good.
Consider the legendary leader who retired from public life to work on his farm. He was then granted the leadership of his country twice, but held onto that power not a day longer than absolutely necessary. He consistently demonstrated great honor and integrity.
You might think I'm referring to George Washington, the father of our country, who left his army service after defeating the British to retire to his farm Mt. Vernon, and later had that retirement interrupted by two terms as the first president of the United States, choosing to withdraw from public life. You might think that.
But you'd be wrong.
You see, in this case, there was a startling precedent some 2,200 years before. In 458 B.C. following a military defeat, the Roman Senate authorized the nomination of a dictator. A group of senators informed Cincinnatus of his appointment, finding him while he was plowing his farm. He went on to serve as dictator twice — only long enough to see Rome through its crises.
The parallels between Cincinnatus and George Washington are obvious. But beyond their rise from private to public life and their place in our minds as legendary heroes of their respective countries, there's one thing that gets overlooked: their reluctance to even serve in the first place.
Neither of them wanted the job.
While history has heaped praise on George Washington (rightly so), this selfless leader was eternally self-conscious. He didn't have the benefit of the classical education that many of his patrician peers had, so he cobbled together his own curriculum, which left him feeling as if he had a second-rate education.
When he was unanimously selected as president by the Senate, Washington expressed his "inability to perform" and hoped that they wouldn't regret their choice. This was part modesty, but it was also part of an innate fear of failure that Washington had.
Having been through so many battles — some of which ended in defeat — Washington was no stranger to failure. But he shared something beneath that fear of failure that afflicts so many of us.
He was afraid to be judged.
In his Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, Washington suggested that those who try but fail should not be judged:
"When a man does all he can though it succeeds not well blame not him that did it."
Think about that for a moment. When you fail, what is your fear? Sure, no one likes to lose or to miss an objective. But many people fear judgement more than failure itself.
We were all fearless once, but along the way we learned timidity. Perhaps you've been part of a company that says they embrace failure, that it's part of the culture. But then when you do fail at something, you suddenly discover that you're penalized. When this happens over time, our natural response is to simply stop trying. To stop taking risks that might lead to failure.
In his book Break the Wheel, Jay Acunzo refers to the Pike Syndrome: a feeling of powerlessness caused by repeated negative events. Like the pike who was separated from the minnows by a pane of glass, no longer tries to attack the minnows once the glass is removed.
So what's the answer? Ralph Waldo Emerson explored this in his essay "Self-Reliance," in which he championed doing what you think is right despite what others may think:
"The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion."
Over time, if you build up self-reliance and self-confidence, you can move away from the fear of being judged. Meanwhile, simply accept that the fear is real and focus on what is within your control.
Then you'll be confident in showing who you are, as Emerson requested.
"Do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself."
Other people's judgments don't affect your abilities.