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Leveraging your Fear as a Leader

LeadershipFear definitely gets a bad rap.

Andrew Jackson told us never to take counsel of our fears. FDR told us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Heck, there’s an entire line of clothing called: No Fear. Certainly Fear wreaks havoc in our lives, but that’s not Fear’s fault. It’s only when we mismanage Fear that everything starts to unravel.

Fear is a great adviser. All my life it has done a terrific job of alerting me, warning me, and keeping me safe. The problems only begin when I abdicate to Fear and let it start calling the shots. Turns out, Fear isn’t a very good monarch—despite its impassioned pleas to the contrary. Like a child, it always thinks it knows best. It’s constantly trying to seize control. But giving in to Fear makes as much sense as letting an ill-trained, near-sighted (and often paranoid) child drive my car while I watch from the backseat.

Put Fear in its Place. Instead of giving in to Fear—or wasting time and energy trying to deny or eradicate a perfectly healthy emotion, I’ve found it helpful to deal with Fear directly. Here are four ways to use Fear to your benefit:

1. Protect What you Love. This is the most instinctual function of Fear. When you feel fear, you’re facing a threat to your safety or the well-being of someone or something you care about. Listen to the fear without giving in to it. Try to identify what’s causing it, then assess the threat: Is it real or perceived? Is it rational or irrational? Is it imminent? How severe is it? How probable is it? After assessing the threat, develop a plan and respond appropriately.

2. Humble Yourself. Beyond the fight or flight response to protecting what you love, fear also illuminates people and things that deserve our respect. Whether it’s a raging river, a hot stove, or an untested new market, fear shows us our limits and tempers our vain imaginations. When you sense fear, odds are you’re in the presence of something bigger than yourself. Take a sober look at yourself and your situation before proceeding.

3. Find your Calling. Fear helps you protect yourself and humble yourself, but it can also lead you into worthwhile adventures. We all have different fears. Some are reasonable (e.g. sleeping on railroad tracks); some aren’t (e.g. speaking in public). Intentionally steering your life toward your unreasonable fears is a sure-fire way to discover who you truly are and what you’re really capable of. This is true of organizations and individuals alike.

4. Cultivate Courage. The greatest gift that fear gives us is the opportunity to be brave. Without fear there can be no courage. My son was an early walker, running and climbing by his first birthday. He was fearless on the playground—until the day he fell off a three-foot-high cement whale. He learned fear that day. It took weeks for him to regain his confidence, but now that he knows the risk, his confidence is different. He is no longer fearless; he is courageous.

How you deal with fear is one of the most important things you do as a leader. Don’t fumble around with it, use it as a lever to become a better leader.

How has fear made you a better leader?

  1. March 7, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Hi Geoff,

    Love this post.

    Fear helps me decide whats really important. When fear emerges it’s time to evaluate by asking is this activity important or not. If it is, press through. If it isn’t redirect.

    Your post made me remember something I wrote about a year ago. Perhaps your readers will benefit from, “Listening to fear” http://tiny.ly/vwph

    Thanks for all you do and kudos for a useful and compelling article.



  2. March 7, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Hey Dan,

    Thanks for stopping in; you always add something of value. I loved your take on this subject in “Listening to Fear”.

    For everyone else, if the link above didn’t work, try this one: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/listening-to-fear/ It’s well worth the read. (as is Dan’s blog in general)

  3. March 7, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Hi Geoff,

    I found your blog through Michael Hyatt’s tweet. Your posts are great!

    While we worry about dealing with fear, your suggestion of putting it in its place is good. Fear really keeps you stuck to a place – neither can you move forward or back.

    Thank you for sharing this.


    • March 7, 2011 at 10:52 am

      Thanks Dominic, glad you’re enjoying the blog! I just visited yours—congrats on making it into March’s Leadership Development Carnival!

      Your point on fear being sticky is a good one. I think unchecked fear can keep us from moving when we need to—or cause us to move when we should have remained still!

  4. pam hill
    March 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Pastor Jerry Webb sent me this after my e-mail to him. Fear is a good thing. It keeps us from doing stupid things…. most of the time. Fear keeps some of us in place right? That’s why it can be hard to let it go. When you have been there and done that fear can keep you from doing it again. That’s why I’ve held onto it. What I didn’t realize is that fear puts a hold on you and your life. You forget you can grow. You fear more and more… Fear God, what can he bring me? why would he care about me? why would my sins be forgiven… why would someone love me? Fear to forgive ourselves. Fear that it can be good. Fear that life can be lived and not spent in what we preceive as safety. Fear that I will end up where I was before. Fear holds on tight. I let go of more of my fear this weekend. I felt relief but a hole that God is helping me to fill so that I don’t fill it with some other fear. It can run and ruin lives. If we only have the fight or the flight then we may feel pain. Pain = no good. Pain = past hurts. I don’t want to lead. I fear I may lead others the wrong way…then what? Fear is learned and felt. It is rational because we have been hurt. It’s irrational because we will be hurt again and can not stop it. Face it I will. Yoda would say. Until the next battle I (we) have to remember to put on God’s armor which I’m still learning about. Trusting it without out fear well, that’s a thought. Pam

  5. March 7, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Pam. I agree with you, fear can be forceful and overwhelming. But it sounds like you’ve discovered that faith can help you tame your fears. Keep up the good fight!

  6. March 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Hello Geoff,
    I think that if you want to accomplish great things and succeed in life you need to understand and deal with fear. We will all need to face our fears if we want to reach our potential. Being brave and courage is a great way to face fear. Thank you for the post.

    • March 9, 2011 at 1:33 am

      I agree, Dan. Fear is the resistance we need to build courage. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. March 8, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Fear is always present. It’s the overarching question, “What if this doesn’t work out” to just about any task. And that’s fair. Every endeavor has the possibility of failure.

    As human’s we asses risk pretty poorly. What’s the worst thing that can actually happen in each situation? Death? Loss of everything we own? Probably not going to happen. Once we get over the fact that catastrophic failure is probably not going to happen we can move forward.

    Those risk assessments we used to do as Army officers are helpful, but if you think back, how many times have you seen someone actually get seriously hurt? A couple times at best in my twelve years. The probability of a catastrophic failure is pretty small, but we tend to focus on that really small chance because it’s so horrific.

    I visited more people in the hospital for an appendicitis than getting shot at a rifle range. (2 to 0)


    • March 9, 2011 at 2:20 am

      Hey Matt,
      Thanks for stopping by. I agree that people often get immobilized by irrational fears. My wife calls it “catastrophobia”. I love that term.

      I do believe, however, that a realistic look at the worst case scenario is a valid part of risk management. I disagree that the goal is to realize the “catastrophic is probably not going to happen” and move forward. That sounds like playing the odds and “hoping” you don’t become an unlucky statistic. I’d rather admit that the catastrophic is a possibility (however small), do whatever I can to mitigate the circumstances, and move forward alert to the fact that our goal is worth the risk we’re taking.

  8. March 22, 2011 at 8:32 am

    I have always thought of fear as something to be afraid of and wanting to get rid of. It is so true as it can be a motivator to push you through. I suppose it is all dependent upon how your brain rationalizes and deals with the information you are givining it and how you filter said information. To many times our subconsious tries and sabatoge us from becoming who we are meant to be.

    • March 24, 2011 at 9:21 pm

      Absolutely Gena. I think we sabotage ourselves a lot more than we realize!

  9. May 27, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    Geoff, What a great post! Absolutely on target. Fear can paralyze but your 4 points turn it into an action-maker and give it a whole new perspective! Thanks for the inspiration and a highly enjoyable read!

    • June 2, 2011 at 7:24 am

      You’re welcome, Jan; Glad you enjoyed it!

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