With age, I strive to become more real. I want to shed whatever remnants of my personality reflect behaviors based on fear and not love. Physical growth and intellectual growth assist us in reaching authenticity, but for me, spiritual growth is the most important.
Presenting my real self means letting go of my fears, plates of armor that keep people away and limit my own self-disclosure. Being vulnerable, not being liked or loved, making a mistake, being criticized, feeling worthless, being unproductive, losing control, disappointing others, the unknown, becoming old, failing, death, injuring myself, and being wrong—all these fears shape my behavior and the way I deal with life. I become a human mirage, an appearance of what people want to see. When the mirage disappears, only desert remains.
I worry I won’t be liked. That translates to my agreeing as much as I can, even if it means not expressing my true opinion. When I hear an opinion counter to my own I think, is the issue important enough to voice my disagreement, am I totally convicted of my point of view, or is there merit to the other opinion? Usually it’s not worth a disagreement that might damage a relationship.
I worry about failing. That translates to my avoidance of risks, overworking projects, and overthinking issues. I avoided starting my own company or joining any but the strongest companies because I didn’t want to be any part of failure.
I worry I’ll be on the wrong side of an issue. That translates to arguing and sometimes anger, and anger is almost always based on fear. Something as simple as disagreeing with my wife on driving directions can cause an argument. Often she is in the right and my agitation with her comes from the fear that I might be wrong and lose control.
Although less introverted than I once was, when I was in eighth grade I was even more so, and didn’t reveal much about myself, worried I would disappoint my friends. When it came time for the eighth grade dance, I was excited to be attending what would have been my very first dance, although I already knew a little dancing because the music teacher Ada Reynolds had taught us square dancing in her class. (That’s the kind of dancing we did in Arizona.) I never made it. When I told my family I planned to go, they teased and teased. “But you don’t know how to dance. Do you have a girlfriend? I’ll bet you will be too shy to ask a girl to dance.” I secretly did like Judy Wingfield, but I let my parents’ kindhearted teasing keep me home.
I should have gone to the dance. My sensitivity didn’t stop then. When I went to work in the corporate world, I thought it wrong to take or make personal calls unless it was an emergency so I instructed my wife not to call me at work. On the few occasions when I did receive a personal call and someone stuck their head in my office, I would drop my voice an octave and assume the tone of a serious businessman. Was I afraid of my own voice?
It wasn’t until I began writing my book, Leadership for Life, that I decided I must change how I live my life. Writing about leadership and teaching it, as I began to do for the Houston Baptist University MBA program, requires a strong point of view about what makes great leaders.
I believe that love, forgiveness, and gratitude have the most profound impact on a leader’s effectiveness. And I believe that, as a leader for life, you must uncover the real you, love and accept what you discover, forgive yourself for past mistakes, and be grateful for your relationships and your life. I’m good at intellectualizing issues but often not so good at changing my behaviors. I hope I can adopt this philosophy into my “real” life.
Accepting these insights as true, I look at myself and places I can show more love, forgiveness, and gratitude. I work at trading my fears for love, I forgive more, and I express more gratitude for everything in my life. I give my opinion, wear what I want, and let go of many worries about what other people think. Naturally I want to be loved, but I have discovered that the more I love the more I receive it.
When I meet a new person, I expect to find something to love about them and so I look for his or her unique gifts talents and wisdom. When I meet a new class of students, I believe they are all special. I look into their faces and see the face of God. It changes the way I teach.
On April 7, I will start teaching again. One of the goals I strive for is that each student will discard personal insecurities (fears) and realize he or she is special. I want each person to become real. Authenticity will make them better leaders.
On the first evening of class, after introducing this goal, I ask the students to stand up and turn around. Then I say, “One more time…… Well, I don’t see any imperfections!” What a person looks like has no relevance to their value or worth. We all wear masks. I try to see beyond the masks and armor and get a glimpse into each person’s soul. Just like them, I am just another person hoping to be worthy of love.
The famous quote from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams captures the spirit of becoming real. It’s about loving and being loved.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
Living in fear creates suffering. If love fully replaces fear in my life, I will become real. I think I’m getting closer to becoming real, although I’m not sure I fully understand how the change happens. I do know that fear is the ultimate prison and love is empowering and limitless.
Douglas Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Baptist University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.