Fear is a Four-Letter Word

shutterstock_667160380 1000x666I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a leader in times of uncertainty. Probably because it feels like we’re living in a time of uncertainty about a lot of things – close to home and around the world. The constant drumbeat of “what will happen if…?” and the daunting realization that we simply don’t know – and scarier still – can’t do anything about it – is nerve-wracking in the least.

So what does all this mean for business leaders? After all, customers, employees, shareholders, and peers are looking to us to define where we go and how we get there. Too often, we look at all leaders as logical, rational players. In my experience, this is rarely the case. We are human beings, emotional creatures, at work as well as out of work, and our emotions and feelings drive our actions, at least as much as our thinking does.

Always present, but never more so than when we’re not sure what is going to happen, is the powerful emotion of fear.  We are all afraid of something. Afraid of dying. Afraid of being left behind. Afraid of not being able to have an impact on the world. Afraid of being fired. Afraid of losing a loved one. Afraid of being made to look bad. The list goes on, endlessly.

It is these fears that drive us. Why do we care? As leaders, we’re expected to take action – to do something, to do anything. When we’re under pressure – and surely, the state of uncertainty we’re living in today is a source of pressure – we’re likely to act out of fear.

For ourselves, understanding what we fear and what motivates us helps us understand our own drivers. It doesn’t mean we have to tell everyone what we fear. But we should at least be able to tell ourselves.

This mindfulness allows us to understand why we do what we do. When we understand the “why”, we immediately gain a narrative that supports the decision or allows us to change our decision if it isn’t grounded in something that makes sense.

It doesn’t stop with us, either. Taking the time to consider the fears of those we work with helps us connect, productively, to get good things accomplished. If someone is afraid, they are likely to operate in less rational ways.

I’ve met Patrick Sweeney through the Young Presidents Organization who has a completely enlightened view of fear. His mission is to help leaders find their fear and use it as fuel.  What I appreciate about his perspective is that he believes that we should not be afraid of fear – in fact, we should seek it out, embrace it and use it for good.

Ultimately, we choose the role that fear will play in our lives and in our leadership. What I know for certain is that when we understand how fear drives behaviors – our own and those around us – we gain insight into how to engage. Being aware helps us take better actions, in more productive ways.  It allows us to move from a sole focus of transactional leadership where we move from solving one problem to solving another, to one that allows us time and space to focus on the strategic decisions that will define our legacy as leaders.

What do you fear? How does that fear affect your leadership?