What’s your greatest fear? Failing? Not being successful? Being unable to provide for your family? Losing your financial security? Being seen as an imposter—and having others discover you don’t know as much as they think you do? Death—yours or a loved one’s? A major mental or physical disability?
I can relate to all these fears and then some. My big fear has changed over time. In my thirties, I was afraid of not being a success (that’s different from being a failure) and now, in my fifties, my big fear is dying with my “masterpiece” or “song” still in me. This fear of not living fully in my purpose and giftedness competes head on with my fear of not providing for my family. Talk about existential angst!
The Nature of Fear
Fear arises from the thought that something negative will happen in the future. Left unchecked it can slow down the strongest of people and reduce their leadership capacity. When you don’t have enough Leadership Capacity* you get flustered, defensive, or shut down just when you need to be present and grounded.
It’s hard to hide fear. Others can smell it on you. If you stuff it, you’ll tend to use it to make others perform for you or you’ll transmit it, leaving others to carry it for you. Unfortunately, fear is a big blind spot for leaders and is responsible for intimidating leadership styles and the inability to accept differences.
The High Cost of Fear
The influence of your greatest fear isn’t limited to one area of your life. The fears I listed affect all areas of your life. Further increasing the effect of fear is the way you’re wired—your brain is designed to prevent you from fully experiencing the effect of your fear. Fear often runs silently in the unconscious.
Think of the huge engines that power a ship. After you’ve been on a ship for a while, you get so used to the hum of the engines you forget they’re even there. Similarly, when fear becomes familiar you forget it’s present. Given its influence on your thinking and behavior, any change in the way you relate to your fear has the potential to transform your life.
How do you prevent fear from stopping you in your tracks, creating inertia, or having fear-based thoughts create self-fulfilling outcomes? For example, how do you not let your fear of failure prevent you from taking the risks necessary to succeed? How do you keep your fear of not being successful from turning into blind ambition that limits your leadership effectiveness?
Building a Healthy Relationship with Fear
There’s a mature and conscious way to relate to fear. It starts with seeing fear as an ally or guide. To do so involves taking a counter-intuitive step toward your fear and leaning into it.
Here are four things you can do to harness or reduce your fear:
Verbalize It: I encourage my coaching clients to appropriately disclose their fears to others. There’s a limit to how much fear you want to share in certain work or family situations yet, in most cases, some verbal expression of fear allows you to use fear as a warning sign and as a way to stay focused. If you’re in a healthy YPO-WPO forum or similar small group, use this unique sanctuary to express your fear.
Journal about It: Writing about your fears is another way to disarm the ability of fear to bring you to a standstill or constrict your performance. List your fears. What’s the real fear under the surface fear? For example, is it the fear I will fail or is it the fear I will be rejected and be alone?
Plan for It: What’s the future event you’re afraid will occur? What can you do to reduce the chances of that event occurring? Not planning for or reducing the risk something will occur is self-sabotage and results when you don’t lean into your fear.
Identify the Source: Fear is the product of a belief. What beliefs or assumptions are you making that are creating your fear? For example, many people fear they won’t have the ability to adequately provide for their family. But what does “provide” mean?
What are your beliefs about what it means to be a provider? For some, providing means owning a 2,000 square foot house and food for their kids. For others, providing is making enough money so their spouse is not required to work outside the home.
For some people, it’s not having to rely on others for a job or money. Maybe for you it means to fully fund the tuition of the most expensive college in the country for all your children or to leave a financial legacy for your kids when you die.
Remember, none of these beliefs are true. They are the images and stories we have grown to believe and that our culture has reinforced. When you don’t examine and question your beliefs, they create fear and an inability to see any alternatives.
The Power of Beliefs
Because of our beliefs, we equate success or failure with our ability to do things we have often arbitrarily determined are important. As a result, certain potential outcomes make life a high-stakes game and we become driven by pervasive fear, stress and anxiety. We will not find fulfillment from a place of such fear.
Those we lead are influenced by our distorted view of reality. For successful people, the impact of fear can be worse. Successful people often compare themselves to each other and in the process unconsciously fuel fear in each other creating a society of people driven by fear. Imagine a world where everyone fears being judged by everyone else if we don’t excel, pay living expenses regardless of the cost to our soul, or do whatever it is we all think equates with success.
Fear is not something we can always eliminate but we can choose to lean into it. The definition of courage is not the absence of fear but acting in the face of it. It seems the more courageous we are the more we can understand the source of our fear and begin to get comfortable being vulnerable enough to examine our beliefs so we aren’t be driven by it.
When we examine our beliefs, we open up the potential to become fulfilled leaders, able to choose to lead from the heart—a more inspiring way to lead and much less stressful way to live. When we change our relationship with fear not only do we transform ourselves, we have the potential to transform the world around us.
* Leadership Capacity is a term I picked up from one of my associate coaches, executive coach Steven Morrow. Think of leadership capacity as the ability to skillfully access mature, grounded leadership ability in the midst of fear or vulnerability.