The lights were shining brightly and my friend and I had to work hard to stay balanced on the tiny square of stage we found ourselves on. I don’t recall much about why I was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the limelight at the school Rabbie Burns evening but, 30 odd years later, I can still feel the white-hot sensation of embarrassment and the crippling awkwardness of not knowing the words to the song.

In coaching training we are taught about the importance of defining moments in life and how they can have a significant impact, positive or negative. Defining moments have a transformative effect on our outlook and behaviours and even have the power to propel us to strike out on a different path in life altogether.

The moment in the school hall was a defining life moment for me. I developed a fear of being visible, I found it difficult to speak up in groups and any form of public speaking was a straight out must avoid. That moment was quickly compounded by a couple of school plays where I was cast as the bride and had to kiss the boy in my class in front of the whole village (I lived in a village of c.800 people and went to a school where there were only 4 of us in my year group; including me). It was the 80’s so I’m going to park the whole ‘young bride rescued by handsome man’ situation and what that communicated. That’s for another post. The only thing I will say is that I believe it did contribute to my disinterested view on marriage for many years.

In the years following those moments, my fear of being visible began to seriously impact my progress, especially as life started to demand more of it from me. The more visible I needed to be, the more difficult it seemed. I had quickly mastered the art of a low profile at high school. At university, I’d actively avoid lectures and tutorials where I knew I might be picked out from the crowd and asked to give my view. Later, I’d speak up in work meetings and go bright red. I’d avoid all public speaking, from team presentations to conferences, like my life depended on it (I believed it did). And, if there was no way out of giving a presentation, I’d spend days obsessing about the slides and practicing what I had to say. And still, I’d be paralysed with terror on the day. At best, I’d manage a robotic delivery and at worst at I’d suffer a complete mind blank coupled with the familiar surge of white-hot embarrassment and crippling awkwardness.

Then came the next defining moment in my visibility journey. I was working on a high-profile national marketing campaign. It was exciting and purposeful and I was surrounded by a committed, passionate team. A speaking request popped into my inbox from my boss who, as the topic was on my area of focus, wanted me to take the opportunity to share our important message.

My body had the usual physical reaction to such a request but I had recently read Coleman’s PIE model on career success. He suggests that success is determined by three factors – performance, image and exposure. Performance is how you perform your job day to day and is valued at around 10%. Image is what others think of you (30%) and exposure is what others see and hear about you and valued at a whopping 60%. In all honesty, I was pretty crushed to find that exposure was valued so highly. I had subscribed to the work hard model for the past decade. But it made sense given it’s only the people in your team and some others who will have any experience of your performance or image.

So, I decided to take the bull by the horns and do the workshop. It would be around 20 people; manageable I thought.

About three weeks before the conference, the organisers sent the agenda through to me. I opened it and froze. I was listed as the keynote speaker and would be opening the conference. The conference had 600 attendees. Six hundred. Cue meltdown.

I tried many angles to get out of the keynote. But my boss held firm and gave me some advice about clarifying the brief before agreeing to things in the future (this turned out to be incredibly sage advice which I now regularly practice and share).

Keynote day arrived. I got up on stage and delivered my presentation. It was robotic and a little bit hasty. I experienced a mind blank. And yet… when I got off stage I felt exhilarated. Like I was superhuman. The feeling lasted for a good few hours and the halo effect for days. Ten years on, I can still remember what it felt like.

At the time, I did not feel particularly thankful towards my boss who stuck firm on me doing the keynote. But because of her action I was able to break the iron-clad grip my fear of visibility had on me. For that, I am eternally grateful.

My visibility story didn’t stop there. It’s something I work on every day, especially as I build a business where visibility is key to communicating my values, purpose and mission. I have worked with incredible people who have helped me reframe my thoughts, reduce the fear and obsessive practice and create positive and transformative visibility moments. Now, I take opportunities; some I win and some I lose but I learn from all of them.

Why understanding your defining moments matters. 

Leadership is about who you are, not just what you do. It’s important for your self-awareness and personal development to be able to identify and reflect on the moments in your life where you made a pivotal decision or had an experience that fundamentally changed you. 

5 questions to help you identify and understand your defining moments: 

  1. When you look back, what are your defining moments in life so far? 
  2. Why are they important to you? 
  3. What critical decisions did you make? 
  4. How did those moments – and the decisions you took – shape your life? 
  5. What might you do differently if you had another chance?

Reflecting on these defining moments can help you to identify what skills you need to develop and what your strengths and values are. Sharing these moments, and how they have shaped you as a leader, can inspire others to seize theirs.