Pausing to look fear in the eyes: reflections from the WorldBlu Summit
By Nicholas Petschek, LRN Leader in Governance, Culture, & Leadership
I recently attended WorldBlu’s Power Question Summit — a two-day retreat that asked the power question: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Acknowledging and confronting fear is something I’ve long known is important, but occasionally need an extra boost to help me do it. This summit was one of those boosts. I often find that the most interesting challenges lie just behind fear, this Summit helped me pause and revisit my own journey of discovering how organizational leadership, governance, and culture influence business outcomes and employee inspiration, productivity, and well-being.
So, what is fear? Henri Hyppönen shared insights from his recent book, Why We Fear, differentiating between anxiety (the anticipation of fear) and fear itself (being confronted with a threat). Both anxiety and fear initiate mobilization (commonly referred to as “fight or flight”), and while in some contexts this is a useful reaction (such as avoiding extinction…), in most daily situat v ions, it is not. These situations typically call less for fight or flight, and more for pause and reflection.
At LRN we know the power of pause — space to reflect on our behavior, understand our opportunities, and reimagine our lives. I’ve found my own pause over the years with Vipassana meditation. Neither pause, meditation, nor the slow movement — presented at the Summit by Carl Honoré — advocate for rejecting our fast-moving world. Instead, they show us how taking the time to pause leads to better performance in our quotidian stress-filled, mile-a-minute, competitive environments. All three ideas are backed by extensive scientific research, such as the truth about multitasking (spoiler alert: it’s not really possible).
A fellow participant succinctly summed up these ideas, “be guided by the compass, not the clock”.
My own compass has taken me through several phases of connecting the theories of how we work to actual organizations. At each junction, I allowed myself time to pause, and I’ve used my own version of Toyota’s famed 5 why’s to uncover foundational or related challenges I wanted to tackle. I began my journey in experiential learning and performance art — I wanted to know how groups formed, how they functioned, and how they didn’t. My tools included improv facilitation techniques, many of which are now known as “innovation” or “design thinking”. Performance is in essence about storytelling — since I was able to hold a video camera I worked for my father, the owner of a video production company, helping tell stories of mission-driven NGOs, corporate executives changing their industry, or documentaries on geopolitics. Having worked with foundational human connections and learning to tell stories, I paused (by going to grad school) to ask myself, how does this scale?
I then learned one way to scale through a half a decade at the United Nations. The scale I saw and contributed to, however, was often rigid and overly structured. In part this was due to the nature of the work, however, I continually wondered if perhaps there was a way to inject freedom and flexibility into these great networks.
My pause now was a 10-day silent meditation retreat. This led me to the heart of innovation and disruption — Silicon Valley. I joined Palantir to learn how to help organizations use technology to not only solve their hardest problems, but also to help them reimagine themselves and to harness the full power technology afforded them. I was also given the opportunity to work in flat, decentralized teams with decision-making authority. They specifically cast aside the yoke of traditional hierarchy in an attempt to harness everyone’s creativity and shared responsibility — and are now the 4th most valuable startup in the world. Learning disruption (the good and the bad), I understood that it came from visionaries — leaders who could foresee the future, and inspire others to follow them there.
This led me to organizational development and effectiveness, where I focus on uniting these chapters: creating trusting and caring relationships between what until now were strangers (or adversaries), understanding how to scale “humanity”, using our already established organizations with local and international reach, recognizing the transformative power of technology and data to drive decisions, and helping leaders of organizations recognize their power to influence governance and culture to enact this change. The power question asked me to once again pause and reflect as I take another step on my journey.
The final activity was to silently visualize the ideas from the Summit. Over several minutes, 100+ participants morphed from shape to shape, eventually representing a human heart. LRN’s new report shows us that “[society has] gone from an Industrial Economy — where we hired hands — to a Knowledge Economy — where we hired heads — to what is now a Human Economy — where we hire hearts. My journey has taken me from understanding hearts, to scaling them, to inspiring them to discover what they could do if they were not afraid.