Despite glorifying leaders as strong, powerful, and even heroic, leadership isn’t easy. Whether people seek leadership for recognition, creating change, power, social status, making a difference, or service, when it comes time to step into leadership reality sets in: sometimes it can feel downright terrifying. As leaders, we become exposed to all sorts of risks, judgments, responsibilities, or even attacks that we may not have foreseen. For many other people, it’s this type of exposure that keeps them from stepping into leadership in the first place. In order to create change, however, we must take the risk and dare to lead.

The Vulnerability of Leadership

For myself, and many other leaders I’ve known, leadership can feel vulnerable. Personally, there have been (and still are) plenty of moments when I want to disappear, hide in a corner, give up, or defend myself. Every leader I’ve known has felt similar feelings, whether it’s when sharing an opinion or feeling, paving a new direction, leading change, or taking action.

There are valid reasons behind these feelings. For all the ways that leadership can be put on a pedestal, the experience of leading isn’t as pretty as it may seem. Consider experiences common amongst leaders:

Projection: People tend to view leaders as who they want them to be, not as they are. Put in a “parental” or even deified position, people then may feel intimidated, insecure, or assume that leaders are judging them and think they somehow have to measure up. This view creates impossible standards that neither leader, nor any human, can reach.

Personal Attacks: Check out virtually any social media forum and you’ll find cruel, hateful comments towards those who are brave enough to put themselves out there. Watch or read any news source and notice how the media loves to prey on anyone who is in the public eye. With the cultural norm being to expose even the slightest flaw, no leader is safe.

Imposter Syndrome: In taking the risk to step out, many leaders question who they are to be that person. They often wonder if they measure up, compare themselves to other leaders, and second-guess their behavior. This self-doubt and insecurity can feel maddening and debilitating at times.

Criticism: Leader’s decisions, actions, words, behavior, and even appearance are constantly subjected to scrutiny. There can be more focus on waiting for leaders to fail than to succeed. Sometimes, it seems like leaders can never really get it right, no matter how hard they try.

Letting people down/making mistakes: Leaders feel (are often are) responsible for the people they serve. There can be a constant sense of internal stress to not make mistakes or cause harm. Carrying the burden on their shoulders, leaders may fear to make a wrong decision or accidentally cause unintended consequences.

Isolation: Between projection, intense responsibility, being subjected to scrutiny, and or being misunderstood, leaders often feel alone. Ground for real, authentic relating becomes difficult, with few people to talk to, trust, and count on. We may even lose friends along the way.

Personal harm: The more outspoken a leader is, the more potential harm they face. Some of the most courageous leaders have been physically hurt and even murdered for their acts of leadership. The more change a leader seeks to create, the more danger they face.

The hard part is that, no matter how long we’ve been leading or how much we grow, these risks and insecurities never go away. Every good leader I’ve known who is willing to step out of their comfort zone and play on the edge shares these experiences.

Daring to Lead

Although we may not be able to change these experiences, what we can change is how we respond to them. Instead of using them as excuses to back down or give up, we can learn to stay the course and find our way through.

Even if these experiences aren’t comfortable, one thing we can take comfort in is that we aren’t alone in having them. Instead of judging ourselves or thinking that we’re not doing it right, we can recognize that these feelings are normal. To a greater degree, they are actually signs of healthy leadership, because they indicate that you’re not hiding out and playing it safe.

Leading is like being on a roller coaster. There are moments when we experience profound connection, meaning, and purpose, and feel like we’re on top of the world. There are other moments when we feel like total failures, like nothing is going right and the world is against us. The key is to stay on the ride and keep moving towards our destination.

There isn’t a day I can remember when I haven’t felt some degree of fear, self-doubt, negative self-talk, or urge to quit and blend in. However, the more I’ve learned to accept these experiences as part of the package, the easier it’s been to recognize them, acknowledge them, and just keep moving. And, just like being on a roller coaster, the feelings do pass as long as I don’t try to stop the ride. Yes, leadership has its risks, but if we don’t take those risks we have little chance of receiving the reward. Ultimately, by daring to lead when we most want to avoid leading, we can discover what leadership truly means.

To discover your own edge, consider the following questions:

  • What holds you back from leading fully?
  • What support do you need to step into leadership?
  • What potential benefits to leadership would outweigh what holds you back?
  • What is your motivation for leading, and how can you stay connected to that motivation in times of struggle?
  • What qualities, traits, behaviors, or attitudes can you mimic in leaders who you admire?
  • What can you draw strength from during challenging moments?