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I was awestruck by this New York Times picture of the rubble of a home destroyed in a recent California wildfire. The charred sculpture seems a haunting symbol of our collective impotence to address the challenges we face.

Today’s Conversation explores how unrecognized fears undermine the courage necessary to act in our own best interest.


Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel, Siddhartha, portrays Siddhartha’s journey from spiritual seeker to businessman and back. The story provides insight into challenges that derail effectiveness.

After leaving his life as a samana (spiritual mendicant), Siddhartha entered business because he had fallen in love with an elegant courtesan who required expensive gifts.

In his first job interview, Siddhartha was asked how he could possibly manage Kamaswami’s vast estate without any previous business experience. Siddhartha enigmatically replied,

  • “I can think,
  • I can wait, and
  • I can fast.”

Taken in the story’s context, Siddhartha’s reply referred to his confidence that he could conduct business flawlessly because he was free of greed, hatred, and delusion. Siddhartha’s charisma dispelled doubt of his competence and he was hired on the spot. As Siddhartha predicted, his dispassionate mindset led to a steady expansion of the business and its reputation.

Initially his previous experience as a spiritual seeker seemed to protect Siddhartha from the self-indulgence of his new life. Over time, his protective detachment from his pastimes of drinking and gambling broke down and he became increasingly entangled in his dissipation.  One night he became completely disgusted with himself and attempted suicide.

Despite preparing Siddhartha for initial success in business, his time as a spiritual seeker had failed to fully prepare him to reengage in the world. I turn to an insightful book on courage to answer, “Why not?”

Gus Lee, in his book Courage, The Backbone of Leadership, suggests that when analyzing the reasons for poor outcomes, one should look for one’s underlying fears as a cause for suboptimal performance.  Then, by acting with better awareness of those fears, one can confront these situations more effectively.

In Siddhartha’s case,  he had a fear of not being “unique enough” which decreased his effectiveness:

  • He left his father never to return because of his father’s “conventional” Brahman beliefs which Siddhartha chose not to follow.
  • After meeting the Buddha, Siddhartha justified relinquishing the Buddha’s teachings because of the “need to find his own way”.
  • Being good at business didn’t satisfy his need to be “different” either, so he just “played” at it.

His need to be unique also made him susceptible to the charms of a courtesan’s compartmentalized love.

This “need to be unique” caused Siddhartha to undervalue the importance of knowledge already gained. This inability to consolidate wisdom as he encountered it led his life to spiral out of control.


Gus Lee outlined three steps to uncover the hidden fears that may be sabotaging our effectiveness:

  1. Identify a specific area(s) in which one is underperforming,
  2. Sort out your fears that may be undermining better results and choose which fear seems fundamental, and
  3. Decide whether the fear indeed justifies a change in one’s approach to the situation.

This exercise is powerful because we naturally exaggerate the potential negative consequences of our fears.

Here’s an example of these three steps in an area of underperformance in my own career:

  1. For decades I had accepted my strength in mentoring “stars” and my weakness in mentoring “average” employees. My acceptance guaranteed that I would continue to be a less than stellar boss for those I assessed to be average performers.  Was there a fear underlying my ineffectiveness? Yes.
  2. My fear arose from the extreme embarrassment that I imagined I would personally feel if I were less than a stellar employee myself. This led to my exaggeration of how uncomfortable others would feel when routine performance issues were addressed.
  3. My own fears made me insensitive to the reality that employees want to grow and appreciate skillful counsel when they aren’t doing their best work.

Recognizing and addressing such fears can greatly improve one’s effectiveness.

Tomorrow’s Fix Today™,


Switch Healthcare designs solutions for self-insured employers that are dissatisfied with the high cost and poor health of the healthcare status quo.


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