Fearless or Forced?

By Sarah B. Drummond

When I go to the beach and get into the water to swim, I know that I cannot just get my feet wet. I love the water but don’t like to be cold, so I turn off part of my brain and walk into the water decisively, without hesitation. If I think too hard, my dislike of the cold will overcome my desire to swim.

Yesterday, my family and I went to the beach. I walked into the water while steeling myself. The air was so hot that the water felt arctic, but I knew I’d get used to it, so I kept on walking. Afterward, my husband said, “You were just fearless when you got in!” I asked him, “Did I look fearless? I was forcing myself.”

Fearless or forced? It’s never possible to observe another and know what they’re feeling inside, and yet those in leadership roles are often assigned feelings by those they lead that don’t match reality. Hilary Clinton is often called calculated and cold, and yet she told Congress that she agonized over Benghazi in ways they could not possibly understand. President Obama is known for his coolness under pressure, and yet we can all see his graying hair. Rudy Giuliani wowed us all with his courage on 9/11, but we know he must have been stressed; he had a job to do; that was all.

I can hardly compare the stressful work of the seminary deanship in the midst of seismic change with these examples of life and death situations, yet I have learned a lot this past year about what it feels like when others make assumptions about my emotions. “I am so sorry; this all must be terrible for you,” doesn’t leave a lot of room for a response, but it was a common enough greeting last fall to keep me away from some professional meetings. “You must be so happy to be moving to New Haven” is another. As a cradle Nutmegger this assumption was accurate, but with a family and a life and even a house on campus, nothing about uprooting and moving is quite that simple.

What helps leaders get through these times when our emotions aren’t what others seem to want them to be? We lean into the belief we have that what we’re doing is the right thing to do. Swimming on a hot day will make us feel better, even though it takes a minute or two to get used to the water. Making needed changes when that which we were doing before and for many years wasn’t working? Difficult at first, but necessary, and therefore worth it.

We want to see leaders keep their wits about them under pressure. We also want them to feel whatever it is we hope they feel. The former is to be expected, but the latter isn’t necessarily fair. For how can we know when a person is fearless or forced? We want our leaders to lead, and we also want them to be just like us. But in the end, we need them wading in waters that might not be easy at first. Whatever it takes for them to wade into those waters on our behalf is worth it and simply more important than how they do or don’t seem to feel. A guess: most feel scared to death. But they have a job to do; that’s all.

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