5 Secret Fears That Will Kill Your Leadership Ability

Featured Columnist: Cristina Filippo, Ph.D.

The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. — Nelson Mandela

Can I let you in on a little secret?

Most people in leadership positions live with fears on a daily basis. 
 In fact…
 Most have failed more than they have succeeded. 
 Most have been criticized more than they have been complimented. 
 Most have made decisions that failed miserably. 
 Most have led people in a direction that hasn’t panned out. 
 
 In other words, they have experienced failure first hand, realize that some people won’t like them, and understand that they will make numerous poor decisions with large implications. So, in a way, their fears are not unfounded. Fear is a natural part of leadership. However, individuals must learn to cope with fear to lead effectively and overcome obstacles.

The Science of Fear
 There is, of course, a lot of science behind fear. This video will give you some insight into the physiological manifestations of fear.

In our current political and economic climate, everyone seems to be living in a state of fear. We are caught in a spiral in which we are so scared of losing our jobs, our savings, our country…and that fear overtakes our brains. And while fear is a deep-seated and adaptive evolutionary drive for self-preservation, it makes it impossible to concentrate on anything but saving our own skin. Ultimately, no good can come from “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. Fear prompts retreat. It is the antidote to progress. Just when we need new ideas most, everyone is seized up in fear, trying to prevent losing what we have left.

We All Have Fears and Doubts…
 In the last month I have had two different CEOs look at their leadership team and say, “Half the time I have no idea what I am doing and that terrifies me.” Those two leaders were showing a great example of leadership by being very transparent, but for the most part we don’t do a good job of sharing our fears. Many of us don’t want to get vulnerable or seem like we don’t have it all together. Although I don’t promote this type of thinking, I completely understand it. I want you to know and be encouraged by this: if you have fear as you lead, you are completely normal. However, since it seems that everyone is living in a state of fear and doubt, wouldn’t it be a competitive advantage if you were able to self-manage yours?
 Let’s take a look at five fears in particular and some possible reframes that you can incorporate in order to work on that fear. Some of these are more overt fears than others, but if you have any of them, they could keep you from reaching your potential as a leader.

1. Fear of Failure. When leading a team, failure can come in many forms. Making bad financial decisions. Bringing in the wrong people. Letting an important ball drop. Not properly communicating the vision and what everyone’s role is in that vision. No one likes to fail. Although good things can come from failure, it’s never a good feeling when you experience it…especially when all eyes are on you. Driven people hate failure more than anything in the world. However, you do not become a successful leader without having experienced failure along the way.

Answer — Use the Left Side of your Brain. There are two different concepts that are important here. One is the imagination that comes with fear. We imagine the worst happening. We want to avoid that worst-case scenario at all cost, so our lizard brain takes over and we launch into protection mode. The important concept to integrate into your development is to remember the scientific part of your brain. Being able to do a reality check internally is key. With science we can combat those fears by asking ourselves these questions: What evidence is there to substantiate my worst fears? Is this really the worst that can happen? What data do we need to get past the initial resistance?

2. Fear of Criticism. There are so many criticisms leveled at leaders. They are building the company on the back of employees. They are moving too fast. They don’t respond in a timely manner. They have lost touch with what it takes to be on the frontline. As a leader, your shortcomings will be highlighted more than your strengths. The team you lead looks to you to make the right decisions, but public criticism is the norm. Criticism is an essential ingredient for business success that must be embraced rather than avoided.

Answer — Avoid the Perfection Trap. The key is to maintain a healthy level of humility, tap into a support system, remain self-aware and have compassion toward the experiences of others. By accepting criticisms, leaders put themselves in a better position to succeed in the long term. But above all, don’t wait for the mirage of perfection to arrive before you start a business or steer the company in a certain way. It will never happen and can result in extreme stress or being trapped in a self-sabotaging mindset. Wait for perfection and opportunities are lost forever.

3. Fear of Confrontation. Confrontation is a necessary leadership responsibility. However, a high number of leaders aren’t actually prepared to be straightforward with business partners and subordinates, and fear is the source. In fact, a study conducted by Columbia University found 57 percent of participants thought they were being assertive when, in fact, everyone else perceived their behavior as being unassertive. Leaders who fear confrontation are negatively impacting their company’s organizational growth.

Answer — Your People Need Clarity Not Confusion. Too often, when we choose not to face tough human issues such as employee conflict, poor performance or a lack of departmental harmony, we inadvertently create confusion and roadblocks for our employees. We may even have a great rationale for our inaction such as, “It’s an HR issue,” or “I don’t want to get involved in these kind of issues.” Whatever our excuse, turning a blind-eye in these matters is, in itself, a choice. If left unaddressed, not confronting issues undermines you as a leader and the role of teamwork in the company. No matter how often you talk about the importance of teamwork, that verbal communication is only valuable when it is supported with action. In the end, a leader is what he or she tolerates.

4. Fear of Making Decisions. Decision-making is critical for business leadership. Notice I didn’t say “good” decision-making. Sometimes it’s just about making a decision and moving forward. Analysis paralysis can cripple an organization. Poor decisions will be made. Ultimately, the ability to learn how to make good decisions in highly chaotic environments can give you the tools necessary to take your business to the next level.

Answer: You Have 960 Months. Time is precious. Nine hundred sixty months is the time you may have on this planet if you are lucky. Sadly, we spend so much time second-guessing ourselves and the decisions we make. Good leaders know when they should speed up or slow down their decision-making. Slowing down may mean missing a potentially good opportunity. Pushing forward too fast and making knee jerk decisions will lead to major obstacles. Obstacles that cost money. So be prepared, use the information at hand, and make the best possible decisions you can. When you miss the mark, adjust quickly and doubt yourself less.

5. Fear of Success. This is the subtlest of any of the fears that I’m writing about here. And, you’re probably skipping over this one thinking that there is no way that you have this fear. But, wait just a minute. We’ve seen this one over and over. We have seen people that are at the point of graduating from college who fail a class or don’t finish a dissertation just so they don’t have to leave the comfort of what they’ve come to know for the last 2–4 years. And, that’s how this fear manifests itself most often — comfort. So, what if you ARE successful? You might make a huge difference…and making a huge difference is what you’re meant to do, what you were created to do, why you were put on this earth.

Answer — Cut Through the Noise and Get Out of Your Own Way. If you struggle with this one, ask yourself these questions: Why am I standing in my own way? Our pasts have a way of creeping in and being a part of our future. We can be such heavy objects to move out of the way. What do you need to let go of? What words have others said that still fill your mind? What does success look like? What happens when I am successful? It can be a huge release to finally hit success, but what will happen when you finally get there? Will you set another goal? Will you celebrate? Will you find a new direction? Will you quit? You need to ask yourself these questions, because you will be successful if you decide you’re going to be. Get out of your own way. Leadership is calling.

Cristina Filippo is Co-Founder and CEO of Impact Consulting, an organizational development firm whose core purpose is to grow amazing leaders, teams and cultures.
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