Fearful Leadership: Finding Courage

I love Fall. Not only does Fall showcase the unequivocal best weather of the year, but it is also the only time of the year to safely (and maybe with a little fun, as well) indulge in the emotion of FEAR!

Leadership, at it's core, is about building interdependent relationships. Leaders who build and maintain healthy relationships still feel fear, of course, but they don't allow their fears to drive their behaviors. Leaders who act from fear allow irrational thoughts, unfounded fears, and limiting beliefs to undermine their relationships with others, destroying their leadership potential. Fearing these outcomes will not prevent you from experiencing them, and if you are familiar with paradoxical intent, it may actually create the conditions that bring your fears into reality.

Fear is a pretty dirty word in most cases. From a young age, many of us were taught that fear was something to be avoided, if possible. Fear denotes weakness, and weakness is usually linked to threat. Psychologically, fear is useful because it brings our attention to threats to our personal safety, threats to our comfort, and even threats to our ideas. Fear is also the root of anger, anxiety, and rejection, which is why we talk so much about it in leadership development work. So lets talk about the fears that threaten the relationships that leadership is built on.

Fear of Failure

The desire for achievement is the birthplace of the fear of failure. Achiever leaders are detailed, organized, thorough, and driven to succeed. They often collect things of tangible value to display their worth to others, and they strive to succeed in whatever the next challenge is. The underlying fear, however, is the fear of failure. For Achievers, any perceived failure is the confirmation of what they've always known: that deep down, they are worthless. The fear of being found out as a stupid, useless, nincompoop can drive Achievers to do more, get more, be more. So much more that they rise to the level of their own incompetence and bring about the failure they were so desperate to avoid. Achievers might take on roles that are not well designed or supported, thinking they'll fight through, or start a degree that they are not prepared to finish, or take on more tasks and responsibilities than they have time in the day to complete. The fear of failure has them achieving themselves to death.

Fear of Rejection

The fear of rejection is born from the need for connection to others. Affirmers are leader who desire relationships and connection to others above all else. They are loving, caring, giving, and self-less. They often find their way into helping professions like teaching, healthcare, or ministry to fulfill their need to love and connect. The underlying fear of rejection, however, can cause that love to turn into co-dependence to avoid the end of that relationship. Affirmers can get stuck in a cycle of giving their time and energy to everyone around them, only to feel burnt out and empty because they've never asked for the same in return. Often, they throw away reasonable expectations and boundaries to make others happy, and lament the low quality treatment they receive in return. Eventually, the Affirmer's very real need for support and connection can feel desperate and cloying, creating disconnection from even their closest allies.

Fear of Betrayal

The fear of betrayal grows from the need for control. Asserters who lead from their need for control are direct, courageous, and risk-tolerant, but deep down are searching for safety. When Asserters are leading from fear, that desire for control becomes controlling. When a leader takes control, they take if from somewhere. Taking power and control away from others can, in severe cases, become domineering and abusive. Because of this, Asserters often find themselves feeling overwhelmed and exhausted because they feel that they are constantly responsible for everything going on around them. This also has the paradoxical effect of leading to the loss of control, which commonly shows up as the loss of power, by demotion or removal from authority, or by those around them taking themselves away from control. Asserters might blame others for this loss of power, feeling that it is betrayal, although their own actions are often the underlying cause.

Here's the good news about fear. You are right!! You are right to fear failure because you will fail. You are right to fear rejection, because you will be rejected. You are right to fear betrayal, because someone will betray you. There's no avoiding it, it's just the way the world works sometimes. But do you need to fear these things as much as you do? Failure and rejection and betrayal are, in general, not the end of the story. So how do you carry yourself through those moments of dread?

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it's the courage to continue that counts." ~Winston Churchill.

Have Courage

Courage is the operative word here. Most of you know that courage is not the absence of fear, but the decision to carry on, in spite of it. Emotions are temporary. Almost everyone around your regularly experiences these upsetting emotions. If you pay attention, you may even notice a pattern. Do you get anxious before certain types of meetings? Are you regularly fighting about similar topics? Do you behave in particular ways towards certain people? You may be experiencing signs of a deeper fear that needs to be addressed. Make a plan to deal with them and then let them pass. Have the courage to make the changes you need to make, but also to let go of emotions that are not helpful to you at this time.

Know Your Worth

A client was once struggling with a sales position. He was afraid that, after spending lots of time and energy building relationships with clients and planning out proposals for them, they would see the cost and run. He worked with other sales professionals to refine his pitches, to smooth his delivery, but once everything was laid out on the table, if he got anything other than an enthusiastic yes, he would start discounting his work. Eventually, his clients were getting deals that were costing him money. As we talked about it, I asked if he knew what kind of benefit his clients were getting from his services. What was the return on investment of his work? Could he calculate it? Three days later, he called me laughing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential return, and he was charging pennies on the dollar. He feared he would lose a client by charging them, but didn't realize the benefits he was offering them. They knew, which is why they were with him, and they wouldn't turn down a good offer when he gave it to them. Once he learned his worth, he didn't fear asking for it. Doing the work you need to do can ease your fear, but remember that your own value is intrinsic and shouldn't be based on what others believe.

Ask For What You Need

Because fear is so closely tied to our perceived weaknesses, it can be easy to ignore what we lack and to minimize what we need to be stronger. Vulnerability is the heart of this issue. No leader is an island, and having a support system around us to show us our blind spots and supplement what we lack is an important part of success. This requires vulnerability in acknowledging our weakness and asking for help. Yes, there are people who can and will take advantage of this vulnerability, but that is not as common as we might fear. Ultimately, the benefits you will receive from being open and honest with yourself and others about your opportunities for growth far outweigh the danger of revealing your weaknesses. Everyone should have at least two or three people that they can feel comfortable enough to be this vulnerable with, but it's also important to take stock of what you truly need for success, and work to voice that to others. Ultimately, you won't get what you don't ask for, so ask for the support you need, even when you feel weak.

Assume Positive Intent

A final road block to building courage is a lack of trust and empathy. When we feel fearful, it can be easy to retreat into ourselves and rely only on our own abilities to make change, often because we have experienced untrustworthy people exploiting us to their own advantage in the past. Assuming negative intent means that you believe people are specifically targeting you, looking for an advantage against you personally, trying to maliciously tear you down. It's true that there are untrustworthy people around us, but more often than not, people are simply doing what's best for themselves, which can sometimes conflict with our own desires. It is tempting to make ourselves the center of the story, as hero fighting injustice or a victim bearing the brunt of unkindness. Truthfully, you may not be that important. A person who bumps into you on the street may only be in a hurry. A coworker with a clipped tone may be having trouble at home. Instead of jumping to negative intent, work to develop the assumption of positive intent instead. Trust that others are doing the best they can, empathize with the struggles they are experiencing, and check to see if you can do anything to support them. Often years of negative assumptions and unhealthy relationships can be undone with a simple question: Are you okay?

Fear of falling, fear of spiders, fear of vampires creeping into your bedroom at night, or ghouls popping out from behind a tombstone are nothing compared to the fears inside us that we all struggle with on a daily basis. But being a good leader is not about being fearless. Instead, acknowledge your fear, learn everything you can about it, courageously ask for help from those around you, and give back the same. Fear itself is much scarier than the consequences of courage, but not nearly as scary as the lackluster life you will lead from acting only out of fear.

Happy Halloween!!

**Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University, studying leadership and trying to reconcile the seemingly competing goals of happiness and success, for herself and others.

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