The Price of Fear and The Promise of Exuberance

Did you know that we can’t even process good news when we’re locked into a mood of fear?

Think of a time when you tried to convince someone of the opportunity available in a crisis or tried to help them see the “silver lining” in a setback only to have them give you a look of “You really don’t get it, do you? This is bad.”

Why does fear put good news out of reach for us?

Fear is a friend when we need to deal with an immediate danger. It’s the emotion that gets us out of the burning building. It spurs ordinary people to do extraordinary things to save their loved ones from a threat.

However, as a mood or a “trapped emotion”, fear is no longer our friend. As U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously said in his first inaugural address in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

When does “fear itself” begin to pose a threat to us?

The Price of Fear

Let’s look at what fear does to our bodies. First, it triggers the amygdala in our brain to release a biochemical cascade throughout our body known as the fight-or-flight response. This response gives us increased strength and speed to respond to the threat. All good news.

But when fear settles in as a persistent mood, the amygdala is triggered—repeatedly and relentlessly. We see potential danger everywhere. Our senses are on red alert all the time. We put on our emotional armor. We stick with “our own kind” and distrust—even demonize—everyone else. We put rings of defense way out there, seeing any collaboration or compromise with our adversaries as a dangerous slippery slope. We take refuge in ideological bunkers.

Over time, we become ever more cynical about “good news”.

Sound familiar?

Since 9/11, the USA seems to be hijacked by fear. We are now known as “Fortress America”. We subject our visitors to fingerprint checks and submit our phone calls, emails, and social media interactions to constant surveillance. We arm ourselves with weapons beyond anything seen in any other developed country.

Even our politics have become warlike. The dominant campaign strategy these days is to cast your opponent as the enemy, attack them as people (not just their position on issues), and use every technique available to destroy their credibility.

We are losing our place in the world as that “shining city on the hill”. A friend from the Netherlands recently told me with real sadness, “We love America. We miss the America that you once were. But more than your military strength, the world needs the USA to be the beacon of hope once again.”

Similarly, many of our workplaces, schoolhouses, and health care organizations are filled with fear and “inside politics” that drain the energy of our best employees and make implementing any innovation an exhausting gauntlet to run.

Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations and best-selling author of Joy, Inc., says that we have actually engineered fear into most of our organizations as part of our traditional “predict and control” approach to management—an approach that no longer fits the times.

What we need is a mood that brings out creative thinking and entrepreneurial risk-taking. A mood that creates space for seamless collaboration. A mood that attracts and grows the best young talent.

What mood do we need in our organizations today?

According to CEO Sheridan, “We need to pump out the fear and pump in the joy.”

The Promise of Exuberance

Theologian Howard Thurman said:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

After her record-breaking swim from Cuba to Key West in 2013 at age 64, Diana Nyad said of her thirty-year quest, “I didn’t do this for some athletic record. I did this as a lesson to my life; to be awake, alert, and fully alive.”

Their words capture the essence of exuberance. It’s a mood shared by leaders who do the impossible and inspire others to do the same.

Exuberance is a billowing proactive energy that uplifts and empowers us to act together. It was the mood present in Fargo, North Dakota in 2009 when citizens of all stripes worked around the clock for days, singing out encouragement to each other as they filled and stacked two million sandbags to protect their community from the raging Red River.

It’s the energy of contractors, engineers, consultants, renowned experts, and architects who worked together over 11 years to push the limits of design and engineering and create one of the most seismically advanced structures in the world: the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland.

And here is one more bit of good news.

Dr. Sonya Lubyomirski at the University of California Irvine reports in her research on happiness that only about 10% of our moods are directly traceable to our life circumstances. After subtracting another 50% for our genetic “set point”, we are left with a full 40% that is under our control. We can learn to generate our own mood, not rely on the luck of good circumstances to do it for us.

We are all called to be leaders today. In future blogs, I will share some practices of exuberant leaders who have learned to be “mood masters”.

Stay tuned