In a recent presentation about enhancing communication and leadership effectiveness in our organizations, I spoke about the role of fear and how it prevents us from doing our best work.

It inspired me to explore doing our best work on ourselves.

While leading an organization change, I came across a visual representation that helped me when I was stuck. I began using it as a coaching tool to help others challenge their thinking. It was the concept of headset spacer error told me by a longtime leader at Cessna Aircraft.

Simply put, the space between the headset creates most of our problems. We can (and often do) point out people that made things harder for us, didn’t treat us fairly, kept us from achieving a goal or pursuing a path, or were otherwise unhelpful in our lives. If we are honest, the most significant barrier to achieving our desired outcomes is the space between our ears.

In contemplating change, our minds drift rapidly to the downside. All change is loss first. We must replace the familiar and comfortable with something that may or may not be better. We embrace the devil we know rather than the one we don’t. We ascribe high risk and potential pain to most change. This combination conspires to keep us from taking the first step to change and improve.

Before we embrace personal development or even step into it with trepidation, we must address our fears. The ones we make up between the headset.

Strategies for tackling personal development work

1.   Set higher standards. We have about 86 billion neurons in our brain. Learning happens when we add more connections between them. Practice: Set development goals that hurt your mind a little and feel out of reach. Stay curious and ask for help. The resources are available for you to learn anything you desire.

2.   Get out of your head. There is dramatic saying that if we are in our head, we are dead. Our fight or flight reflex is hardwired and will always be our first reaction to change. To grow requires us to step through whatever fears we invent and step into confusion, letting our curiosity lead the way. We make up worst case scenarios all the time. They rarely, if ever, happen. Practice: Write down your fears and ask a thought partner to play devil’s advocate and uncover the fallacies in your thinking.

3.   Demonstrate your vulnerability. Dispense with the need to be right and look good. We are all ignorant of something until we learn it. Practice: It is a powerful moment when we raise our hand to challenge ourselves to try, learn, and master a new skill. It demonstrates courage, curiosity, care, and engagement. It also illustrates to others that our outcomes can be bigger than our fears.

4.   Ask stupid questions. The only dumb questions are the ones we keep hidden. The issues that never see the light of day. The unasked question that keeps us stuck when, by asking it, we unleash knowledge, growth, and collaboration. Practice: Allow yourself to be the questioner-in-chief on your team. It increases your credibility and connection with others and leads to personal growth and effectiveness.

5.   Stop tolerating stagnation. The world’s greatest supercomputer lies between your ears. Development requires us to challenge it to learn new things. Practice: Selfishly put your personal growth at the top of your investment list. The return on investment crushes any other alternative—including bitcoin.

6.   Ask for help. I believe that asking for help is heroic and too rare in our organizations. Practice: Find a co-worker, peer, boss, partner, or coach that you trust to have your best interests in mind, has points of view different than your own and provides you with respectful straight talk. Such a person can help get you out of your head and moving toward your development goals.

Personal development assessment questions

As you think about your professional growth, consider these questions:

1.    What kind of leader would I select for myself? Am I that kind of leader today? How do I know?

2.    How may I serve my team more effectively?

3.    How does my current behavior serve me and others? Today, do I create an environment that supports high performance?

4.    What’s missing that, if I could improve or master the behavior, would significantly enhance my effectiveness?

5.    Have I done the work to uncover my blind spots? Do I have someone around me who helps me uncover them?

6.    Do I have enough truth tellers in my life? Have I asked them for help? Do I allow them to help me after I ask? How do I take action after they help me?

7.    Is my current development work helping me create and achieve a compelling future?

Takeaways: Nobody does it alone.

The choice to be vulnerable and ask any question in the spirit of learning is key to personal change and effective leadership.

If we don’t make our outcomes more important than our fears, we fall short of our potential.

Some certainties about personal development—you have to want to do it, be open to feedback, and identify a vital behavior you want to improve.

If all of those things don’t exist for you today, answer the questions above and add your own. Then decide to make 2018 your breakout year.