This post was updated on October 24, 2023. Dr. Steven Wurtz’s current role is interim superintendent of Arlington ISD and Dr. Lindsay Whorton’s current role is president of The Holdsworth Center.
Your eyes pop open in the darkness. You reach for your phone and look at the time – 2:00 a.m. You squeeze your eyes shut and try to settle back into the bed, but it’s too late. Your mind is churning, your heart is racing.
Does my team respect me? Are they talking about me behind my back? Do they think I’m weak? What if my big idea backfires?
Not the fun kind that ends with smiles and candy, or when the credits roll. Debilitating fear, the kind that makes you feel exposed and vulnerable, that replays scenes of humiliation and shame, that taunts you endlessly for every mistake, real or perceived. The kind of fear that makes you tread lightly, cling to the status quo, play small.
Because of the quickly shifting landscape in education today, our Holdsworth partner districts are often pushing the sort of big, bold changes that keep people up at night. At times, their decisions impact thousands of teachers, staff and students. Other changes are less visible, like sharing tough challenges they’ve faced or being honest about things they need to work on.
Being part of the Holdsworth program means being part of a community where it’s safe to have real conversations with peers. We help our teams draw strength from one another and feel supported in facing challenges and building the muscles needed for courageous leadership.
In our very first Holdsworth program session with Hitendra Wadhwa, founder of the Institute for Personal Leadership at Columbia University, he challenged the group to explore their personal leadership story – what made them who they are and got them to this point – and then share it with the group.
“I was riddled with fear,” recalled Steven Wurtz, Chief Academic Officer at Arlington ISD. “The idea of sharing a very personal story with my colleagues and my boss – I didn’t think I could do it.”
He had four days to muster up the courage, and when he finally stood up to share his story he was surprised to find that he was sobbing. And so was everyone else.
“It was a very powerful moment,” Steven said. “Everybody in the room had amazing stories. I realized for the first time how human every single person was. Sometimes we forget.”
After five years on the job together, Steven and his boss learned fundamental things about one another. The experience enhanced their relationship by helping them understand who they were at the core as people and leaders.
Steven went on to share his story with faculty and staff at Arlington ISD and once again forged stronger connections:
“When we see other people putting themselves out there, we often label that as an act of bravery. Yet we rarely extend the same generosity to ourselves. We are conscious about the persona we put forth to the world because exposing our inner self can feel very vulnerable and scary. But it’s the only way to allow yourself to be truly seen. When we share our heart and motivations with openness, our example invites others to do the same.”
What happens when everyone on a team can be vulnerable and open?
It impacts the quality of collaboration and everyone’s commitment to success, Steven says.
“I am grateful for the lessons around authenticity that this experience has taught me. It has only increased my influence in a positive way and made me a better leader.”
So how do we manage fear so that it doesn’t hold us back from living fully and doing things that challenge us?
When our kids are scared of a monster in the closet, we throw open the door, turn on a light and say, “See, nothing there. It was just your imagination.”
As an adult, it’s difficult to even speak these fears to ourselves, much less allow someone else to point out how silly they are.
Recognizing fear as a monster of your own making is essential if you want to play big and create change – inside yourself, your family, your team, your organization or your community.
In her book “Big Magic,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes a letter to fear as if it were a member of her family and they are all about to embark on a road trip of creativity. She invites fear along for the ride, but warns that its suggestions will never be followed:
“You are allowed to have a seat and you are allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
(If you would like to hear more of Gilbert’s thoughts on fear and creativity, listen to The TED Interview, a brand new podcast on iTunes.)
For Lindsay Whorton, Vice President and Dean at Holdsworth, connecting to your purpose is the ultimate antidote for fear.
“If you truly believe in what you are doing and why it is important, it can bolster you against worries,” Lindsay says. “Doing work that is worth failing at is one of the greatest privileges you can have. There are so many who do not have the luxury of doing things that are challenging or aligned with their purpose. When I feel fear, I always come back to that.”