In order to be a leader these days, you need to perform miracles. And in order to do that, you must use every available gift. Take these scenarios, for example: You’re meeting with potential investors, and they tell you that your business idea is secondary. The smart money is always invested in you, the leader. Your ability to perform — as you — is everything. Or you’re coming up in the world, and your gift of one-on-one gab is no longer enough. Now you have to be able to seduce crowds. Or you have to make a big decision with next to no information. You’re already flying at reckless altitudes, feeling like a lone pilot on a dark night of the soul. You must shake off all doubt! Perform fearlessly! But how?
How else? With magic. I decided to call on Stanley Fisher, a psychologist and hypnotist who helps top-ranked business leaders overcome their performance fear through the art of the trance.
“On a simple level,” says Fisher, “the people I see are suffering from performance anxiety. Executives who come to me have tremendous anxiety and no way to deal with it. With hypnosis, we don’t have to go into the whole history or the psychological trauma. We deal only with the immediate physical problem — with the pain or fear that they are experiencing.”
But what exactly is hypnosis? “Hypnosis is the inborn ability to use the state that we call ‘trance,’ ” says Fisher. “Normally, people aren’t in a state of trance. They’re usually quite aware. For example, if your name is spoken three tables away at a restaurant, you hear it. But you might be sitting at your desk so entranced that you don’t even notice the person standing right in front of you. Playwrights often talk about sitting at a typewriter and actually seeing scenes before writing them. In this inner state, people have the ability to send themselves a message to get over their fears. That’s hypnosis.”
One of Fisher’s clients was a woman whose husband had recently left her. The woman (and her daughter) moved in with her mother, and she soon began having serious conflicts with both her mother and her daughter. She came to Fisher with a problem: “Every time she stood up to make a presentation at work, she would dribble a few drops of urine,” says Fisher. “The reaction terrified her. The trance-inducing message that I suggested she give herself was twofold: One, she must remind herself that she — and not the investors in the audience — is in control of herself. The second, more important message was that just because the rest of the world is pissing on her, that doesn’t mean she should do that to herself.”
I wasn’t as bad off as that particular client — or was I?
Fisher asks what is troubling me. I tell him: Words fail me. And for a writer and lecturer — a “talking dog” — that’s a pretty serious problem. Whenever I have to speak before a group, I go numb. Whether I’m giving a formal talk or telling a story at a large dinner party, darkness opens up before me. And when that happens, all I want to do is escape. Then my audience senses that I’ve checked out emotionally, and so it checks out too. Because of this problem, I have all but stopped lecturing, and I avoid large parties. But now the problem is spreading. I want to write a novel, but I hate reading things written in my own voice. I want to make a statement in life, but I keep taking consulting assignments that help others sound good. I’m more comfortable as a ventriloquist than as a speaker. I have come to view my performance anxiety as symptomatic of my fear of having a deep connection with others. I believe that if I can somehow break this bad streak — a lifelong bad streak — then a lot that’s broken in my life will be repaired.
According to Fisher, 95% of all people have some hypnotic capacity. Fiction writers are most receptive; lawyers tend to be lower on the scale. Entrepreneurs are a mixed bag: Those who crave a great deal of freedom have the highest hypnotic capacity. Those with a great sense of drive are more controlling. Basically, the higher your imaginative capacity, the greater your hypnotic capacity. Fisher tests how hypnotizable I am. He asks me to look up and count to three, to take a deep breath and slowly let it out, and to close my eyes. When he asks me to raise my right hand, I feel myself fighting the impulse, my attention wandering. But soon my right hand is in the air — feeling much lighter than my left hand, to which no hypnotic suggestion has been made.
“Now rest your hand,” he says. It slowly drifts back to the chair, fingers relaxed. “Look at your hand.” My ring finger is curled inward, as if it is hiding. “Interesting,” Fisher says. His deduction: I am extremely hypnotizable — nearly a 13 on a scale of 1 to 10. I am also very much in the grip of some systemic anxiety. Our challenge is to neutralize that fear.
And so we begin. “Close your eyes,” Fisher says. “Visualize three screens. On the center screen, visualize the thing that terrifies you: Watch yourself giving a speech. What do you see?” I notice a sea of hostile faces, and I am about to drown in it. “On the right screen, see yourself overcoming the danger,” Fisher says. I notice a friendly face. Then the screen is bathed in blue, cool and brilliant, as if I’ve jumped into the sea. But I’m not sinking; I’m swimming. In one corner of the screen, I see my reward: a treasure chest filled with doubloons that have been dredged up from the ocean floor. “Now, on the left screen,” Fisher then says, “visualize only the positive feelings that you experience when talking.” The screen goes blank. The fear slams back. I see nothing.
Fisher gently guides me. “Imagine the scenes again — but this time, view them on only one screen. Imagine that there is one positive soul to whom you can speak, and who wants more than anything to hear you. Imagine yourself making a powerful connection to that person.” I see the face of my great-grandmother. (Although I never knew her, I was named after her.) She is standing in the audience, a young girl with a long, blond braid and bright-blue eyes. I speak to her, and by doing so, I’ve brought her back to life. She wants to hear me speak. “Now multiply that face so that many other people are also listening intently to you,” Fisher says. I see many of my ancestors, all begging me to bring them back to life. I’m their envoy to the 21st century: By speaking, I give them life.
At that moment, I’m vaguely aware of the tears that are streaming down my face, but I can’t stop them. I’m far too intent on watching the movie in my mind.
I hear Fisher say, “I want you to count backward from three. When you get to one, slowly open your eyes and focus them.” Three, two, one — I’m back. I know that I never physically left Fisher’s room. I just went someplace else mentally. I was in two places at the same time. And the “someplace else” was far more real than Fisher’s office, which is filled with unfamiliar furniture.
“What do you think happened?” he asks.
Fisher isn’t interested in Freudian analysis when he asks people that question. He’d rather you cut to the commercial message — the 90-second trailer that you can visualize throughout the day to override your fear, to fulfill the role of leader, to become the person who can bring back the dead. For me, that message is rescue. I can imagine myself speaking not to entertain or to inform, but to save a life. If I can see my great-grandmother in the audience, then I can speak. The things that I enjoy the most have a sense of urgency about them. When I imagine my great-grandmother, my talks take on a sense of urgency. I am no longer there to perform; I am there to rescue. I have a service to offer, a vital and compelling reason to be there, a personal stake in the well-being of those around me. And in that situation, there’s no room for performance fear.
Had I not experienced the darkened theater of my own mind, I would never have discovered how to overcome the obstacles to my inherent gifts of leadership.
“Trance is a receptive state of inner focus during which we put all logic aside,” says Fisher, “and give our imagination free rein.” And, says Fisher, you can use trance to change the way that you behave. “I’ve used trance — both during and after surgery — to get people’s bodies to behave differently from how the human body normally behaves,” he says. “Our bodies don’t know the difference between a surgeon and a mugger. They feel the same. It doesn’t matter how anesthetized a body is; it will always go into shock at the touch of a scalpel. Patients need much less anesthesia than normal when they’re in a state of self-hypnosis.”
It’s the same thing with a business performance. The human body is very primitive. It tries to provide the energy that we need to do a job. But the jobs that are most important to us invariably involve some sort of risk, and that causes the body to respond as if it were in danger. “All good stage performers have stage fright,” says Fisher. “They’re afraid that they won’t give a terrific performance. But they learn to turn that fear into excitement.” In a body that hasn’t learned the art of leadership as robustly as the intellect has, those same primitive reflexes limit a person’s full range of abilities.
I haven’t returned to the public stage yet. But my session with Fisher has had an almost metabolic effect on my reflexes, in the same way that a diet can have an ongoing effect on your energy level. For example, I’m much more relaxed about things now. I guess I figure that if I can bring my great-grandmother back to life from the distance of 100 years’ time, then time itself can’t be too urgent. I used to think that life was short. In my opinion, wasting even one day was a bad thing. I was sure that my last words would be “I wish that I’d spent more time at work.” But ever since my session with Fisher, time has been slowing down. Fright no longer leads inevitably to flight: I no longer feel a need to run and escape. The screen on which I was supposed to see performance as a joyful experience — the screen that appeared blank to me — is now starting to be filled in with images.
I left Fisher’s office that day feeling a bit sick to my stomach. On one level, nothing had really happened: All I had done was sit there and close my eyes. On another level, I had endured a tough struggle — fighting my body and its limitations.
What was it, I wondered, that Fisher does for people? “The prescription for self-hypnosis that I give people teaches them to be loving, respectful, and protective of themselves,” Fisher says.
I am beginning to understand a little-known lesson of leadership: The ability to lead your body on the same path as your mind is crucial. It may be more important, even, than the ability to lead others. It may be leadership’s essential gift.
Harriet Rubin (email@example.com) is the author of the “Princessa: Machiavelli for Women” (Doubleday, 1997) and “Soloing: Realizing Your Life’s Ambitions” (HarperCollins, 1999). You can reach Stanley Fisher by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).