Roz Savage is a British ocean rower and the only woman to row all three oceans solo. That’s more than 15,000 miles of rowing, circumventing the planet in about 520 days at about two miles per hour. Alone. In her book, Stop Drifting, Start Rowing, she tells the story of her harrowing journey across the Pacific. I spoke with Roz, who is preparing to teach a course on courage at Yale University, about the universal lessons to be gained when a leader faces a daunting, seemingly impossible challenge. When confronting countless fears and alluring justifications to turn back, leaders must dig deep to find the needed bravery to act. The journey of a solo-rower across the treacherous waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans has these lessons for all leaders facing challenges that may seem just as intimidating.
Start with the greatest frontier inside your head. Being alone with their own thoughts can be paralyzing for leaders. Says Savage, “The first night of my voyage I was six hours into it and got profoundly seasick. I thought, ‘What the hell have I done?’ I was too proud to back out. I knew I was going to have to find the courage to get out of my own head.” Savage talks about becoming very good at thought management. Our thought terrain can be a lonely and terrifying place, with the menacing ability to produce irrational fears containing dangerous elements of partial truths. Savage says, “Mostly it was my imagination that caused me fear. I’d find myself lying awake thinking of the scene in Jaws where the great white is chomping at the guy’s legs. Or imagine myself being run over by a container ship. While I knew the odds of those things were slim, my mind was very adept at making them imminent possibilities. Sometimes I had to talk out loud to myself to redirect my thoughts to kinder ones when I was circling the self-esteem drain.” Leaders tackling ambitious agendas can be prone to harsh messages of self-contempt. Re-scripting narratives that only serve up inventories of inadequacies, or deflecting messages of doomed failure, are necessary skills in times of unprecedented challenge. She quips, “It sounds funny to say out loud now, but tapes like, ‘I was planning to row 16 hours today and only rowed 12 – what a sloth’ felt very real in the moment.” Messages of past failure or the critique of those who are important to us – such as bosses, friends, or spouses –replay in leaders’ heads when attempting something daring. In my work with executives, I actually have them write out the messages playing on these tapes and their impact on personal leadership. I then have them write a re-scripted message to compare how a more rational and honest message might impact their choices.
Learn to prioritize your fears. Too many leaders believe that courage is the absence of fear. But Savage says, “Fearlessness is akin to stupidity. Fear isn’t a bad thing; it’s a matter of learning what to do with it, and how to take action in the midst of it. All fear is in our heads. Sometimes it’s justified and can keep us from making foolish choices. I had to learn to tell myself a different story about what was going on, and frankly to laugh at myself.” The strongest fears often emerge in the anticipation of disaster. Catastrophizing becomes a paralyzing agent when our imagination runs out of control. We start imagining the worst possible outcome until we convince ourselves it’s the inevitable outcome. You can reverse this cycle by trumping your fear with even greater fears. Says Savage, “I knew there were severe storms on the Pacific and that the potential of my boat capsizing was real. I knew the boat was built to handle it but the anticipation of the storms was agonizing. But amidst the storm, when you are holding on tightly as your boat is capsizing and then righting itself, you realize you can handle it. And when I’d fear the storms, I would actually replace that fear with my greater fear – my fear of letting myself down. My fear of letting those who’d supported me down and losing my credibility. My fear of not having the impact on the cause of ocean environmentalism that I’d begun all this for in the first place. Those fears were far greater than my fear of the storms, and suddenly felt far more real than the more remote fear of disaster. Learning to prioritize which fears were greater helped me build the confidence I needed to do scary things and realize I could survive them.” When taking on frightening tasks, it isn’t necessary that you enjoy them, or even that you feel competent doing them. What is important is that you “just keep sticking your oars in the water and rowing” until your comfort zone expands to include the new normal of the precedent you are setting.
Be bolstered by your sense of purpose. Be clear on your reasoning for taking on daring obstacles when setting out. If your motive isn’t strong enough to push you through your inevitable misgivings, you risk giving into them. Knowing why you are doing something, and how you want it to help define who you are, is a vital anchor in challenging circumstances. For Savage, her deep passion for the environment and commitment to raising awareness of ocean conservation was the foundational purpose that drove her to set out on her rowing expeditions. A leader’s sense of purpose defines the stakes within the challenge they are confronting. The stronger the sense of purpose, the more it will help neutralize inevitable fears. Says Savage, “When we can step outside of ourselves and become the hero of our own story, it helps create a healthy degree of detachment from the dream. For me, I would imagine myself writing the book about my journey, cheering myself on to the great impact on the environmental movement I could have. These thoughts helped me keep going when I felt fearful.” Most leaders say that they aren’t aware of feeling “courageous” when doing something brave. They are aware of their own limitations and their aversion to some of the less appealing tasks, but not necessarily the courage they were mustering to act. While fear is often worst in anticipation, courage is often best identified in hindsight. And the most sustainable source of courage lies in a resolute sense of purpose underneath the challenge at hand.
Every leadership story demands courage at some point. For leaders to have lasting impact, they must provoke change, disrupt comfort, and make unpopular decisions. Leadership is the ability to disappoint people at a rate they can absorb. To launch new products, capture new markets, build new organizations, and convince people to join you on the journey will require courage. Dig deep for it, and you will find it.
This article was written by Ron Carucci from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.