The Deathline: Stopping the #1 All-Time Killer of Human Potential

Welcome to the Innovative Leadership Newsletter, brought to you by the Innovative Leadership Institute, where we bring you thought leaders and innovative ideas on leadership topics each week.

This week’s article is written by Karen Tilstra, PhD., an author, award-winning innovator, and psychologist. It is a companion piece to her interview on Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future titled None Shall Pass: Crossing the Deathline, which premiered on September 19, 2023. 

Intro from “FauxMo:”

Short clip from the interview:


Link to the entire interview:

Listen to the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future via Apple PodcastsTuneIn, Spotify, Amazon Music, AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One.

“Knowing your deathline is your lifeline.”

Want to know the secret to being an effective leader and reaching your full potential? In theory, it’s quite simple: it all comes down to knowing and confronting your deathline. What’s a deathline you ask? Let’s find out.


“Whatever your deathline may be, we do any and everything to make sure we don’t cross these lines.”

A deathline is an imaginary line we draw, vowing never to cross. A physical deathline works to keep us alive. It’s what prevents us from jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Physical deathlines are universal and easy to understand.

We also live with social deathlines. Unlike the ubiquitous nature of a physical deathline, social deathlines are both highly personal and based on individual experience and personality. Social deathlines are based on a strict set of cultural expectations and norms. Whatever our deathline may be, we do any and everything to make sure we don’t cross these lines.


“Stifle our ability to act with emotional intelligence and think rationally.”

When it comes to being an effective leader and unleashing your full potential, physical and social deathlines aren’t the biggest factors. It’s personal deathlines we should be most concerned about. These deathlines are deeply personal, not governed by the antonym and physiology or the deeply ingrained social norms. Personal deathlines live deep in our subconscious. They are self-imposed boundaries we believe keep us emotionally safe and secure. Meant to help us survive, personal deathlines evolve from a place of need, but at some point, they stifle our ability to act in a proactive manner. When left to their own devices, deathlines take control, overshadowing our ambitions and stifling our gifts.


So, what exactly does a personal deathline look like?

Deathlines are simply fear. But this fear is the silent puppeteer controlling our deathlines. Many leaders are haunted by the fear of being fired or someone finding out they don’t have all the answers, thus activating a delimitating deathline.  And yet, beneath this veneer of self-doubt lies a wellspring of creativity and leadership acumen. When fear, aka a deathline, becomes the overriding emotion, it obscures our true capabilities, stunting growth and suppressing innovation.

Examples of a personal deathline are fear of failing, being rejected, or being perceived as incompetent. It may manifest into a scenario like this: in department meetings, you don’t speak up for fear of sounding unqualified despite being highly trained and experienced. You could be recognized as a brilliant team member, but you will never know because you let your deathline control you. Opportunities are missed, killing your potential.


The risk of leaving a personal deathline unchecked.

I have a friend whose deathline, “I cannot upset my boss and get fired,” thwarted his professional growth. The hoops he would jump through just to keep in his boss’s good favor could have earned him an Olympic medal. By his own admission, he was never honest with his boss and always played it safe. So, when it came time for a promotion, his boss skipped right over my friend. As you can imagine, my friend was crushed. When he worked up his courage to ask why he didn’t get the promotion, the boss responded, “I just didn’t see you were ready for advancement. You always stay on the safe side, and I needed someone who could tell me the truth, someone with courage.”  If he had only known about deathlines and how to navigate through them, he might have earned that promotion.


“Who does she think she is?”

As a young girl, the dominant voices around me shaped my perceptions. I recall my grandmother’s sharp retort to anyone she perceived as arrogant, asking, “Who do they think they are anyway?”  I can’t count the times I heard her say those seven words. Such seemingly innocuous remarks etched a deathline in my psyche. It took years of self-reflection and courage to challenge this self-imposed boundary. For I never wanted anyone to say about me, “Who does she think she is.”  It was a real deathline. In fact, ironically, I struggled with this while writing my book about the deathline. What if no one read my book, or a slew of bad reviews appeared on Amazon? This was a real deathline.

We all have deathlines holding us back. That’s why we must deal with them.


The Tollbooth Technique

Identifying one’s deathlines, however crucial, is merely the first step. The next is to challenge and navigate through them. And for this very purpose, I developed a metaphor I call the ‘Tollbooth Technique.’ Visualize your mental journey as a highway. Every time a deathline is activated, you come to a tollbooth. Now, you must pay the toll. So, just like a real tollbooth, where you slow down, pause, and pay the toll, when dealing with your deathline it’s the same. You pause, breathe, and ask the mother of all questions: “What’s really going on here?” This simple Tollbooth Technique creates the space needed to manage your deathline. Now you can more objectively decide whether to push ahead or retreat.


“Ace” Words: Space, Grace, Pace, Place

Managing deathlines beyond the Tollbooth Technique involves what I call ‘ace’ words: Space, Grace, Pace, and Place.

  1. **Space** – Create new mental space for fresh thinking. *Have I created the new mental space necessary for fresh perspectives and decisions?
  2. **Grace** – Extend compassion and forgiveness to others and myself. *How can I extend grace to encourage progress within myself and others?
  3. **Pace** – Discovering the proper pace needed. *Have I considered the right pace for the situation?
  4. **Place** – Place informs behavior. *Am I in the optimal place to foster collaboration, honesty, and creativity?


Embrace Your Deathline to Unleash Your Potential

Reflecting on my professional journey, a standout leader I once worked with epitomized what it meant to deal with one’s deathlines. One day she completely forgot an important meeting. I knew she was embarrassed, yet she admitted her mistake, which humanized her and created a safe environment. Such leadership isn’t about appearing flawless; it’s about being genuine. This was a positive outcome of identifying and dealing with our deathlines.


In closing, to unlock the doors to unparalleled success and personal growth, it’s imperative we recognize, challenge, and transcend our deathlines. I urge you to embark on this introspective journey today, to unearth, confront, and ultimately liberate yourself from the shackles of your self-imposed boundaries – deathlines!

Remember – Knowing your deathline is your lifeline!



Karen Tilstra, PhD., is an author, award-winning innovator, psychologist, and super fun person. She has led hundreds of human-centered design projects, runs innovation workshops, and builds innovation labs for universities, healthcare systems, pro-sports teams, and government agencies. Her two books, The Deathline: Stopping the #1 All-Time Killer of Human Potential and 101 Activities to Ignite Collaboration, Boost Creativity, and Fuel Innovation, help leaders and team members unlock the creative potential that lies within all of us.



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Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple PodcastsTuneInSpotify, Amazon Music, AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Also, stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute on LinkedIn.

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