Join John Ullmen for an in-depth discussion in this video Do I have to be fake?, part of Developing Executive Presence.
- During the dark days of World War II, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR as he was known, met with Orson Welles. Welles was the biggest star in Hollywood, having directed and performed the leading role in Citizen Kane, still considered by film critics to be one of the greatest movies of all time. At that point the US military was woefully lacking in resources and readiness. All of Europe was in danger of being overrun by Hitler and the Nazis, and the Axis powers were dominating the East. FDR had been trying to raise the confidence of people at home, and allies around the world.
A speech from that era included this famous line: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But he better than anyone knew how relatively weak and vulnerable the US and the allies were at the moment. When he met with Welles he reportedly said this, “You and I are the two greatest actors in the world.” A few would dispute that FDR possessed a strong executive presence, but his comment to Welles seems to point to a problem. A problem of integrity, authenticity, genuineness.
It’s the most common concern from executives I help to strengthen their presence. Do I have to be fake? Do I have to pretend to be someone I’m not? If I need to change my patterns of thoughts, feelings, or actions in some situations, doesn’t that mean I’m being a fraud? My answer is this: there are two options. First, you can have a “I’m faking it” mindset, which probably won’t work over time. You’ll have trouble maintaining that facade under stress, pressure, and uncertainty, and sooner or later others will see through it.
Or second, you can do what, in my experience working with leaders, is what I’m convinced FDR was doing. As a leader you need to summon something from yourself that inspires confidence in others. You have to summon something that is so true to you it can’t be made false by mere nerves or anxiety, because it runs deeper, and truer than worry and it is bigger than any one person, including you. It’s your passion to make things better for others. By drawing on that passion when you need it you’re being even truer to yourself, to what you truly believe and what you truly stand for, than if you surrender to insecurity or fear.
It might be temporarily true that you’re nervous. And that’s a powerful feeling. But there’s a bigger, better, more powerful, more enduring truth underneath. Fear often comes disguised as truth, when it’s a distraction from truth. Don’t be fooled by fear. That brings us back to FDR. His comment to Welles was witty, but there was a subtle integrity lesson in it too. When he spoke to the country and the world, FDR wasn’t pretending when he said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” At another level he meant, “we.” Him included.
Was he afraid? Probably. That would be a natural reaction to the magnitude of the threat and the responsibilities he bore. But at his core, deeper and better than the fear, was his passion to help his country and other allies prevail over oppressive aggressors. Here’s the point to keep in mind: More important than any person nerves or fear in the moment is confidence in the enduring truth and the broader benefit of your cause. That’s not fake, that’s being truer to who you really are, deepest down. As we go forward in this course, with specific steps for you to take, don’t worry about feeling awkward at first, or nervous at times.
Don’t let that undercut your confidence or weaken your resolve. It’s okay to feel fear. Remember there is something better, truer, and more genuinely you deeper down at the core. And yes, there’s a well known phrase, “Fake it until you make it.” But I want you to know this: none of what we cover that’s new or different for you needs to be fake. Just like FDR, with your passion in place, your passion to make things better for others, when fear, or doubt, or discomfort push in on you executive presence steps lead you back to an even more authentic version of yourself.
FDR also said this, “There are many ways of going forward, “but only one way of standing still. “Fear stands still. “We’re going forward.”
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