Overcoming Leadership Fears
Companies face myriad threats: a volatile economy, politics, cost overruns, competition and disruptive technology, among others. But there’s a particular internal threat that can dwarf them: fear at the leadership level.
Leadership fears can destroy a company in many ways, including:
- Indecisiveness, leading to missed opportunities
- Emotional deception, which prompts bad decisions
- Suppression of people, forcing high turnover
- Insecurity that manifests as self-centeredness
- Confusion that causes leaders to miss threats at the doorstep
Fearful leaders often cannot deal with difficult issues or conversations, so moderate troubles balloon into true crises. They also resist taking the risks necessary to move their companies forward.
Fears can take many forms: discomfort, incapacity, negative feelings, failure and self-criticism. Each carries numerous side effects, most rooted in a fear of rejection. Fears make a leader ineffective and paralyzed. Plans are often forfeited, as is success.
We often forget that fears are part of the universal human experience. They’re normal, to some degree, even for leaders. The goal is to avoid compensating for them and, instead, identify and overcome them. A qualified executive coach can prove invaluable, as it can be difficult to recognize your own fears. Leaders who can successfully put their fears behind them—and learn from them—make the greatest strides.
The fear-reduction process has four fundamental pillars, as outlined by management consultant Peter Bregmen in Leading with Emotional Courage: How to Have Hard Conversations, Create Accountability, and Inspire Action on Your Most Important Work (Wiley, 2018):
- Fears are greatly influenced by a lack of self-confidence. Leaders who boost their confidence address the most challenging of the four pillars.
- Strengthen your relationships and support structure.
- Practicing intentionality moves leaders farther away from fear through focus and an effective game plan.
- Facing fears directly and exposing them puts them behind you for good.
Boost Your Self-Confidence
A lack of self-confidence causes leaders to second-guess themselves and doubt their own abilities. This stifles progress, and the entire organization perceives what’s happening. Unconfident leaders cause staff to lose trust and hope. Everything tumbles downhill from there.
Becoming aware of your feelings is the first step to gaining more confidence. Identifying feelings as they occur can help you pinpoint their causes, which are likely not as traumatic as you may fear. You can handle emotional ups and downs. You’ve reached your current position by doing so. Career setbacks haven’t destroyed you. The failures you’ve endured have made you a better leader, as will future setbacks. Envision yourself confidently navigating the complexities of your job, as you’ve done before, and regain your confidence.
Understanding the motives behind your actions can prove helpful, suggests Citigroup Managing Director Chinwe Esimai in “Great Leadership Starts with Self-Awareness” (Forbes, February 18, 2018). Honorable and reasonable motives help ensure successful outcomes. Build self-confidence by examining your motives. As others respond to your direction and decisions, you’ll receive positive feedback that helps build confidence.
Look for patterns in people’s responses when you act. If their responses are unfavorable, make corrections and learn from them. Positive staff feedback is a fear suppressor. Supplement this with guidance from a trusted colleague, mentor or coach. Be humble, willing to learn and committed to improvement. View criticism as an opportunity to advance your career.
Gaining a healthier perspective can help you conquer your fears. Bregman suggests mastering irrelevancy. Take yourself emotionally off center stage, and put your people there instead. Stepping out of the limelight can bring a sense of greater freedom and reduce your fears. Accepting more of a behind-the-scenes role can work wonders to boost confidence. You’re actually worth more to everyone when you lead with self-assurance.
Without exception, all great leaders have learned the most through their mistakes. Improvements may come with a short-term cost, but the long-term gains are well worth it.
Build Strong Relationships
Self-confident leaders have a support network of solid relationships, which helps reduce fears and fosters unity. Trusted and respected friends can offer critiques without causing offense. We know our friends won’t discard us, which diminishes any fears of rejection. Building relationships with colleagues and subordinates similarly helps you grow and improve.
Leaders must pave the way in building staff trust. Employees respond with trust when their leaders trust, appreciate and support them. Employees who trust you become followers and supporters, which is the best medicine for leadership fears.
Crafting a culture of trust is one of a leader’s most important jobs, and it starts with valuing and engaging people. Giving them the help and support they need earns their trust. As you set the example, let them learn that helping one another is the most effective and productive way to work, where goals are reached and people attain their full potential. There’s less to be afraid of when unity prevails.
Active listening is foundational to developing relationships. Improving this often-overlooked skill builds trust and strengthens connections. Show interest in your people through engaging conversation, where you ask questions and do less of the talking. This shows that you care, and it cannot be faked. People can always sense a lack of sincerity.
Offering your people understanding and empathy in their times of struggle forges loyal relationships that are extremely helpful when you start to doubt yourself or your abilities. Trying to see things from others’ perspective is key. Sometimes people just need to be heard, but if you can help with a solution, you can establish even greater trust.
Improving your communication skills helps mitigate fears, especially when you’re faced with serious challenges. Be clear, and ask others for clarity. Make points that are relevant to the other person’s perspective.
Leadership expert Tony Robbins stresses the importance of discovering others’ needs with openness and sincerity. When both parties express their needs with mutual understanding, they honor each other and establish respect. You’re more likely to find workable solutions that meet everyone’s needs when respect is evident. Situations seem less scary, your confidence rises, and issues are resolved more readily.
Leaders who convert critiques into improvements develop the strongest followings and have the fewest fears. They not only welcome feedback, but they request it. They view constructive feedback as free self-development lessons.
Take intentional action on the feedback you receive. Nothing earns you more respect than admitting you need to improve and taking the required steps to do so. Make sure people can see how your improvements impact their lives. Knowing that every person can improve eases fears. Everyone is in the same boat, and no one has cornered the market on personal and professional development.
Being intentional about preparation—and even overpreparing, at times—removes uncertainty and builds confidence. Gathering facts and data builds objectivity and reduces subjectivity, where concerns and fears can grow. Anticipating the outcomes of different scenarios leaves less to chance. If you weigh the pros and cons of potential choices, your assessment can help you set aside fears. Understand the truth and scope of circumstances, and trust the people who help you determine them. These are positive, logical approaches that create the most effective outcomes because they minimize uncertainty.
Intentionally sharpen your focus on the tasks at hand. Many leaders are distracted by side ventures or rabbit trails. Tempting opportunities often muddle the picture and invite confusion and doubt. As negative emotions gain a foothold, fears quickly follow and self-confidence plummets. Leaders must stay personally focused, while simultaneously focusing on everyone else. Your company’s vision, goals and objectives are your battle cry; distractions and noise must be blocked. Your path to your goal should remain unobstructed. When everyone maintains focus, you can conquer chaos, keep emotions in check and minimize fear.
Intentionality is perhaps best seen in leaders who show resilience when facing setbacks. People need to see a strong, determined leader, particularly during tough times. If you can quickly dispatch disappointments and find something positive in the problem that confronts you, your people will feel more encouraged. This, in turn, encourages you.
Battling fears is easier when you have your people’s faith and support. Establishing a never-give-up approach musters courage, and the greatest leaders adopt this mindset. They may still experience fears, but their determination to move forward with small wins overrides most anxieties.
Directly Deal with Fears
As with many aspects of leadership, the direct approach is best. Facing fears is no exception. With the help of an executive coach, you can craft a plan to deal with your fears head-on.
Bregman encourages leaders to use fear as an incentive. By exposing your thoughts and perceived weaknesses to your coach, mentor or trusted colleague, a secret’s power is broken. Talking through your fears is therapeutic, and you may see how powerless they really are. Freedom eludes you when you bottle up your fears. Solutions are usually less complicated than you first perceive.
If appropriate, admit past fears to your staff—a move that can further reduce their impact. By being transparent and accountable, you’ll earn people’s admiration and avoid criticism or rejection. Strong leaders needn’t fear showing vulnerability if they deal with their fears directly and effectively. With experience, they realize their fears are generally overblown and far less powerful than originally thought.
Take the opportunity to deal with your fears directly and make much-needed leadership breakthroughs. For some people, it takes reaching an uncomfortable level of fear to prompt seeking assistance. In an odd way, consider this a positive step in the self-confidence journey.
There’s no reason to allow fear to debilitate you. Organizations run more effectively—and employees have greater regard for their jobs—when leaders have the courage to lead boldly.
Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist & Executive Coach
Trusted Leadership Advisor
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