One of the hardest parts about driving change in large systems is summoning the courage to “show up” and be seen. This might mean raising your voice in a meeting, publishing an opinion piece, releasing a creative work, planning an event, or proposing a new project.
When you start working in a large organization, you are a cog in a machine. Your first priority is to learn your job. The organization hired you for a purpose, and your top responsibility is to deliver on that purpose with excellence. Everything in your intrapreneurial career rests on that foundation.
This foundational training and performance phase might last years. As you grow up in your organization, you begin to form educated opinions about a variety of topics. Some will be at your pay grade, such as details of how to perform your job. Others will be well above, such as how the organization should recruit, hire and fire; how to allocate and spend budgets; what is right and wrong about your organization’s priorities; and how to improve organizational processes. At some point, you feel strongly enough to raise your voice.
Here is where your challenge as an intrapreneur really begins. You must decide if, when, and how to step outside your defined role to pursue change. That means showing up–stepping into an arena where you are not necessarily expected.
When I entered the U.S. Air Force, I had one job: be the best student pilot that I could. Nobody was interested in my thoughts on foreign policy, DoD talent management, or software development; in fact, I didn’t know enough to have informed opinions. Later, I spent years learning to be the best C-17A copilot I could–then an Aircraft Commander. Simultaneously, I took on increasing office responsibilities in my squadron.
This early stage of my career lasted about six years. By the end of that period, I had proven my competence as a pilot and an Air Force officer. I knew how to perform my job and had begun training, leading, and mentoring others. My aperture widened; I began studying International Relations, paid close attention to the wars underway in Afghanistan and Iraq, and formed my own opinions about what was right and what was wrong with the Air Force and our country’s foreign policy. Many of these opinions touched on issues way above my rank and responsibilities.
In 2008 I was accepted into the Olmsted Scholar program. I learned Arabic, earned a master’s degree at the University of Jordan, studied the Arab-Israeli conflict from both sides, studied in an Islamic school, and watched the Arab Spring unfold first-hand, went to meetings with pro-democracy activists, and watched the Syrian civil war beginning across the border.
By the time I returned from Jordan, my world had enlarged considerably. I wanted to write a book about the experience. Friends and family urged me to, but I was ultimately afraid to show up. I was still just a low-ranking Captain in the Air Force. Jordan quickly faded like a dream, as my formal responsibilities returned to flying and managing flying operations. Who was I to weigh in on lofty issues of national policy? I didn’t feel qualified to write a book.
In retrospect, I was eminently qualified to write a book–and that was the right moment to do it. Unfortunately, my impostor syndrome held me back.
As years went back, this pattern continued. I have been privileged to have some amazing opportunities in the Air Force, which has given me an uncommon breadth of personal experience. I love to write and have much to share.
However, I have consistently held back. I lacked the confidence to try publishing my academic work. When I previously maintained a blog, I never advertised it; I was trapped in a nonsensical tension of wanting my work to be read while fearing what would happen if it was. I showed up in other ways–particularly founding and running my two startups–but I avoided marketing or publicity, which ultimately hurt both efforts.
Even as I held back from showing up–never feeling quite ready–I watched peers and even juniors speed past me. Individuals with considerably less experience were writing and publishing about topics I still did not feel qualified to write about.
Starting this blog was intimidating for me, but I have reached a now-or-never period of my life.
I needed to finally trust that sharing my own journey might help others on theirs.
Why we fear showing up
We fear showing up to lead change for a number of reasons.
- We feel like impostors. We fear being exposed as frauds and worry that we only ended up in our current position by accident or luck. This is strikingly common among high-achieving people.
- We don’t feel ready. We may feel obligated to build up a certain amount of knowledge and experience before raising our voices. This is a valid concern, but there is never a moment where someone tells us that we are ready.
- We fear entanglement. As we inject our voices into the world, we spend more and more time defending existing positions rather than articulating new ones. For wildly creative people, the obligation to sit with existing work can feel like a straitjacket.
- We wish to protect creative time. Many of us enjoy the creative process more than we enjoy execution. Showing up to execute can be intimidating. However, ideas are cheap; if we want to make an impact, execution is 95% of the battle.
- We dislike sleazy or annoying marketing. Many artists, engineers, and other creatives loathe marketing, publicity, or anything that draws attention to us. We don’t want to be as sleazy or annoying as (your favorite example).
- We fear saying the wrong thing. We may fear stepping on landmines, even by accident. This is especially true if we touch on sensitive political or cultural issues.
- We fall short of perfection. If we are perfectionists, we have a very hard time living up to our own standards. Our work never feels good enough.
- We worry about backlash. Any strong position will have detractors, especially in our bitterly polarized political climate. When we show up to stake out positions, these detractors will likely consume some of our emotional and mental energy.
Why we must show up anyway
Despite these concerns, showing up is critical. It is the only way that anything ever changes.
Nobody ever presents you with a badge that says, “you are qualified to lead change.” Rare is the organization that gives you the job title of Innovator and hands you all the tools you need (and if it does, it is probably very messy). Change in government organizations, companies, and society is typically driven by passionate individuals who step well beyond their expected role to envision and implement new ways forward.
Here are some insights that have helped me in my effort to show up:
- Focus on generosity. If you struggle with making yourself visible, focus on what you can give rather than what you can get. This is how you avoid sleazy or annoying marketing. This was the breakthrough insight I needed to open this blog.
- Creating valuable contributions is your bedrock. Showing up for the sake of showing up is never a good idea. However, if you show up in ways that create value for others, everything else will take care of itself.
- Recognize the short memory of the Internet. This sounds paradoxical because anything posted to the Internet lasts forever. However, the national attention span only lasts for days or weeks. As long as you act with good faith and integrity, the Internet is likely to quickly forget about your mistakes or ill-considered positions and move on. Most of the Internet won’t remember that cringe-worthy piece you wrote six years ago, or even two weeks ago.
- Own your expertise and your story. This is one antidote to impostor syndrome. You are absolutely the world’s authority on your own life experiences.
- You don’t need all the answers. Your audience knows that we are all works in progress. You can show up as you are, acknowledge your doubts and limitations, and still forcefully articulate your ideas. You can even change your mind later and share your journey.
- Recognize you are entering a conversation. Showing up–especially in writing–often seems so final. Putting work into the world feels like an irreversible commitment. It is helpful to remember that any contribution is only part of a much bigger exchange through which we all (hopefully) learn, grow, and converge on the best possible ideas and solutions. You do not need to offer the last word.
- Stay in your lane… but recognize your lane is bigger than you think. As a young intrapreneur I was advised to “stay in my lane”, which I still think is good advice; you are most likely to be effective if you can speak with authority and credible experience on a topic, even if you do not know all the answers. However, all of us have rich experiences and can speak with at least some authority on a wide range of topics.