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?