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We Talkin' Bout Practice: Leading Through Fear

Shoutout Allen Iverson. Do you think leaders are born, or can they be made? Interestingly, when comparing a "born leader" with a "made leader," can we identify any observable differences? This reflection is food for thought, as science has yet to discover a "leader gene" that reliably indicates our ability to act influentially. But I'm sure we can all recall a time we thought, "That person was born to lead."

The idea for this post came to me while listening to The Jocko Podcast (what else is new?). In a recent episode, the duo of Jocko and Echo Charles discuss for upwards of two hours how survival instinct and practice create a formula for leading through moments of fear. As usual, many of the examples they used were military-related, but the simple example of an elementary school fire drill made me realize that even in our youngest years, we are taught to trust our instincts.

Survival Instinct

Many will practice with the idea that they are doing it for the sole reason of enhancing their ability at a specific skill. I will admit, for years, I was no different. One of the first steps in transitioning to a "leadership mindset" is recognizing that it is not enough to be exclusively good at a particular task. Whether it be a sport, the guitar, or writing, something else always benefits from our repeated exercise, which we must acknowledge.

When there is an element of survival, things become very real. "Hardos" in the gym are easy to identify (and, usually, even easier to make fun of). But, something can be said about how seriously they take their health, and unquestionably, a reasonable person will wish they had, to some extent, the same motivation within themselves. Why is that?

To the hardo, they suppose they are at risk of extinction if they are not thriving in the gym and with their health. There is a feeling within themselves that failure is not an option, and their actions begin to support this mindset. This is not to say that every meathead in the gym is a leader, but they certainly have the capacity within themselves to be one.

Leaders can sense the survival instinct and translate it into a team environment. While I do not have military experience to draw from, I can't help but think of my years playing competitive baseball, particularly in college. I often speak about my collegiate coach, the first person I consider when thinking of a model leader. Cap felt this survival instinct every day and could translate it in such a way that the rest of our team could comprehend.

For us, anything that jeopardized our championship run was a threat to our survival. Naturally, not everyone will get it. Likewise, not everyone will prevail, especially regarding the stakes when concerning survival. Thus, those who do not comprehend the "why" are not fitting and will contribute very little or leave for a safer place.

When reminiscing about everyone I played with from start to finish, it is no surprise the entire team has gone on to do great things. But, perhaps more remarkably, everyone seems to continue living a motivated life with the proper perspective. Humbly speaking, I have noticed there is a quantifiable difference between myself and many others without a similar experience, for which I am forever grateful.

Fearing the Unknown

"Dave, why is this important?" Think about someone who is a "born leader" and someone who has developed into a leader. What is the difference? Well, someone who is a "born leader" may not have experienced adversity, which is by far the most influential variable in comprising a leader who can excel regardless of the situation. Logic would tell us if they are born a leader, then adverse conditions should be no problem. But this is not necessarily true.

Reflect on the noteworthy leaders from your past - I bet they were the first in the gym and the last out. They carried themselves in a different way that was hard to understand but easy to trust. Morale is typically pretty high and elevates the rest of the team, leading to a cohesive unit where output exceeds the sum of its parts. The reciprocal of this group is an unmotivated body of individuals acting independently, where the output will always be lesser or equal to the sum of its parts but never more impressive.

Much of this comes down to practice. Using the example of the fire drill - there is no way to predict accurately how a fire would spread or how exactly it would play out. Not to mention, fire is a scary, life-threatening thought, and this unknown only compounds the anxiety. We rehearse because we execute how we exercise, and when thrown into the mix, our reflex is to react the only way we know.

A team captain who feels the season is at risk will either rise to the occasion (fight) or panic and give up (flight). As the leader goes, so does the rest of the team. This is often why, during March Madness, unthinkable upsets occur each and every year. Sometimes, a team like Loyola Chicago will even make a Cinderella-like run. I believe, amongst many other intangibles, these teams:

  1. Do not fear the adversity since they have nothing to lose.

  2. Trust in their leaders, who believe they can overcome the insurmountable odds.

To these teams, the unknown is not all that bad. In fact, Jocko and Echo Charles make a good point when discussing elements of competitiveness. The superior team is often equally, if not more, afraid of you. The notion of losing in an "embarrassing" fashion to an inferior program has its built-in anxiety that poorly guided teams often cannot overcome.

Trust Without Understanding

Thankfully, most of us will never experience the misfortune of a life-threatening fire, but the idea is not any easier to visualize. In the moment, most people who have escaped these circumstances often speak of a mixed sensation of tranquility and functioning almost entirely outside of conscious awareness. Sure, adrenaline plays a large part in this, but the other piece of the puzzle is the fight-or-flight instinct that draws from our experience.

You are not practicing this situation daily if you are not a firefighter. However, we can still gain knowledge through our training routines. Practice builds a subconscious confidence that we can draw from in an adverse position. While we may not have experienced the fire before, there is an emotion of familiarity for our senses to fall back on.

Even if you are a firefighter, you are also rehearsing endlessly because your life depends on it. This is why, in aircraft emergencies, we can often draw examples of pilots and controllers who, even in the most dire circumstances, can keep their cool until the very end - good or bad. If you ask a professional in either of these two fields, I am sure they will explain how continually rigorous training scenarios are. The same can be said for first responders or 9-1-1 dispatchers - the practice has become familiar to them, even with lives at stake.

As an example of trusting that which you cannot understand, I like to recall my last collegiate appearance, which was a start in the NCAA Division II Northeast Regional Tournament in my senior year. Naturally, as usually was the case, I was very nervous leading up to the game, and for many reasons. It was possibly my last collegiate baseball experience, and we were stacked against the team that held the #1 rank in Division II for most of the year.

I was more nervous about the former than the latter, as I never felt I was incapable. For the longest time, I just believed I would play at Dowling forever, "going to war" with people who literally felt like brothers - I did not want to let go, ever. How could it get any better?

Despite this, I knew that even though I was experiencing this anxiety, it was entirely natural and would subside on gameday. I counted on the notion that my actions before the game would take over in the present. No one told me this as a matter of fact, and even if they had, there is no way to say that with any certainty. Still, I could just feel it.

As sure as I envisioned, the calmness returned as I started my routines and warmups, as I had so many times before. To clarify, this is not to say I am one of the few who have it figured out - this is a common experience for individuals who advance that far in competitive sports. Those who pitch in the World Series often say, "It is just another game," which is another way of acknowledging the process of showing up to the field and relying upon our abilities, as we always have. Inversely, many who succumb to adversity will tell you they let the moment get to them, acknowledging that it was too big.

Ultimately, we ended up losing 1-0, which was indeed my last experience as a student-athlete. Because I knew I had left everything on the table (fight), the only sadness I felt was it being the culmination of the most significant four years of my life. Those years absolutely shaped who I am today. Rest assured, you wouldn't even be reading this had I not ended up where I was, with the people I was surrounded by.

We Talkin' Bout Practice

Not everyone has a clear-cut experience to draw from. However, we can still put ourselves in an advantageous position, starting with preparation. Remember that it is not just about structuring our regiments and tangible, quantifiable progress. Instead, we must also approach the mental aspect of practice differently by determining the threat to our existence, whether quite literally or metaphorically. The intangibles, as is most times the case, are more consequential.

Thus, I often think back to Allen Iverson's quote - "we talkin' bout practice." But, I put my own Dave-spin on it, as the context of the moment for Iverson was far different than what I am talking about here and now. Yeah, you're right - we are talkin' bout practice, and how we prepare now directly affects our tomorrow. If we ever have to fight, we need the power to trust our abilities at once.

The thought of a threat, be it as simple as a game or as complex as an irrational thought, will pose different sensations. This, however, does not need to stay our reality. We can build trust by holding ourselves to be a little better daily and waking up slightly more confident than the day before.

This was more sports than I have talked about to date, and I mean it all as humble as possible. While some of us can relate to firefighter training, most can relate to competitive sports. Really, the theme comes down to answering the "why" as to the importance of practice. So, as a leader, it is your responsibility to communicate the "why." Make your teammates see what you see and, further, believe in the same way that you do. Watch the results speak for themselves.

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