Forget the myth of the “fearless leader.” Embrace your fears and make a difference in others’ lives.
“I’ve been training middle-aged men for years now, and my program works!” Jake exclaimed. His eyes were so bright I swear they twinkled. “My clients are losing weight, gaining muscle and feeling great, even with their crazy schedules of home, work, travel and family.”
“So,” I asked, “will you open that studio you’ve been talking about and train your own team?”
Clouds of doubt and anxiety darkened Jake’s eyes. “It’s such a big risk for me,” he said, looking away. “I don’t want to lose my job here at the club or jeopardize my relationships. I’m not sure my idea could really work, and anyway, who’d invest in it?”
Our fear of failure dumps buckets of water on the fi re of our passions. Jake’s fear was extinguishing his excitement. Let’s face it: He was not going to get rid of his fear, and neither will you. Being fearless isn’t an option. Fortunately, you can cultivate courage in the presence of fear. And to be a leader, you need to have courage.
The Leadership-Fear Connection
Let’s define leadership for a moment: Leaders guide and infl uence people to work toward a desirable future goal that has no guarantees. If the goal is easy, then mere project management will do, but when the goal is challenging (taking us into unfamiliar territory beyond our comfort zone), then leadership is required. The conditions of leading—newness and uncertainty—trigger our fears; in particular, our fears of pain, failure, rejection and humiliation. Jake was eager to make a difference in the lives of many men, and a growing team of trainers, but his fears were convincing him to stay safe.
I ask hundreds of leaders about their fears, and almost always they are ego- and relationship-based. See if you recognize yourself in these examples:
- “I’m afraid I’ll let people down by failing.”
- “I’m afraid I’ll be perceived as incompetent.”
- “If I don’t provide, I’m afraid people won’t value me, and my friends will go away.”
- “I’m afraid I will lose credibility.”
- “I’m afraid of losing the respect and trust of my team and peers.”
- “I’m afraid I will lose my authority and with it my ability to be effective and successful.”
- “I worry that if I lose credibility as a leader, I’ll be rejected.”
- “I’m afraid of failure, so I delay making difficult decisions till the last possible minute.”
Fear isn’t bad; saying that fear is bad is like saying the sun is bad because prolonged exposure can produce melanoma. Fear arises naturally in the mind and in the body.
Fortunately, so does courage. Courage simply means walking toward what you’d rather run away from. Learning to contain your fears and develop courage is critical for your success as a leader.
Four Hungers, Four Fears
Our life can be seen as an insatiable quest to assuage four hungers: hunger for safety, hunger for control, hunger for connection, and hunger for self-expression. Our fears, by extension, are the hunger pangs we experience when these needs go unmet. Hunger for safety yields fear of pain (or discomfort), hunger for control stirs up fear of failure, hunger for connection lays the groundwork for fear of rejection, and hunger for self-expression makes possible fear of humiliation.
Jake’s fear was rising at the edge of his comfort zone, and that was a rational response in the face of uncertainty and risk. But the difference you make as a leader is proportional to your willingness to face uncertainty and experience your inevitable fear. In particular, you need courage to walk through these four fears:
Fear of pain or discomfort. Your safety concerns—hunger for safety—are primarily social and psychological, not physical. Jake’s fear of loss of livelihood was legitimate, but it had more to do with comfort than actual physical harm. What Jake feared was the stress of discomfort, likely to manifest as muscle tightness and headaches, a churning in the stomach that could ruin his appetite, and poor sleep and fatigue.
Fear of failure. Hunger for control is a drive for autonomy and an ability to affect our environment. Each of us has a drive to influence our relationships, processes and results. We differ in the amount and intensity of power we crave; some of us tend to be more aggressive, others more passive. When we feel we can’t control what’s important to us, we must face our fear of failure. It’s practically impossible to be a leader without staring regularly into the taunting face of failure.
Fear of rejection. Hunger for connection is a primordial force for humans, and when connection is threatened, it gives rise to fear of rejection. In fact, an enduring punishment of social offenders is enforced disconnection: sending a child to her room, sentencing an adult to prison, giving a cold shoulder to a friend, or excommunicating a religious member. Jake masked his fear of rejection with a thinly veiled lie (“I don’t want to lose my job . . .”), but in reality he was unwilling or unable to face his vulnerability.
Fear of humiliation. Hunger for self-expression includes creativity and spirituality. This is the drive to know and show our skills, talents, value and uniqueness; when this hunger is blocked, we feel humiliated, small and worthless. We have a hunger to express what is inherently within us—our uniqueness and our creativity. We want to feel valued for our intrinsic worth. We want others to see and know us, and we feel frightened at the prospect of humiliation and worthlessness.
What happens when these fears are triggered? As soon as anxiety clouded Jake’s passion, his reaction followed a common pattern: He instinctively contracted (made his thinking small), complained (found faults) and controlled (returned to the known). The reactive pattern can play out in various ways (see the chart below), but facing the fear is always the healthy alternative.
7 Ways to Cultivate Courage
Could Jake learn to embrace his fear and find the courage to start his new venture? Yes! Like yours, his fear started with the words “What if?” What if I fail? What if I’m humiliated? What if I’m rejected? What if I’m hurt?
Courage isn’t about ignoring these questions; it’s about dealing with them realistically, which requires awareness, planning, persistence and support. Here are seven ways to become a more courageous person and leader:
- Define the fear. Name the fear, and define it for yourself. Your personal definition of fear of failure might be, “I don’t want my boss to think poorly of me,” or, “I don’t want to be homeless if I screw up and lose my job.” Your definition will specify your plan.
- Learn to be mindful. It’s common to mask fear by avoiding or becoming angry. Rather than fighting or running away, learn to turn on the Observer Mind: Take four deep breaths and pay complete attention to your fear. Observe the fear—your body sensations, your thoughts and your emotional tone. Don’t get caught up and swept into the fear; just observe it. Imagine that you are observing an ocean storm from an island. This mindful pause will calm your body, calm your mind, provide you greater insight about your fear, and show you that it passes faster if you watch it than if you give in to it.
- Mentally rehearse. In a quiet space, imagine yourself doing whatever it is that frightens you—asking for a promotion, proposing a new project, starting a difficult conversation—and visualize what you’d do in that scenario. Visualize the entire situation, both with the best-case scenario and the worst. This removes the mystery and reduces anxiety.
- Exercise. Fear gets expressed in your body as stress and tension—it stiffens the muscles and diverts blood from the brain to the extremities. When you’re taking a bold step, be sure you don’t neglect your own fitness and health. Exercise and stretch, specially before you engage in that difficult conversation or propose a risky new project. Exercise helps to “exorcise” fear!
- Get some perspective. Ask yourself, “Is what I’m afraid of really going to kill me?” Survival fears are the most debilitating, and most fears really won’t affect your survival. Distinguish between fear (a normal reaction to a perceived threat) and panic (an excessive fixation on the threat). Ask yourself what other perspectives could be true about this situation.
- Do more reps. Every time you give in to a fear, you make it stronger. Conversely, every time you practice courage, you make that stronger. Remember, courage isn’t the lack of fear; it is simply walking toward what you’d rather run away from.
- Do something! Every small action is a step toward dismissing your fear. Mindful, supported, planned and purposeful action is key to a courageous life.
Your job as a leader is to encourage your people, to fill them with courage. By practicing courage yourself, you multiply the energy through your teams and collaborators. It is your job to cultivate courage in your people so they deal more directly with change and speak up more willingly about important issues. In short, courageous people try more, trust more, tell more and accomplish more.