Six Griefs of Good Leadership – (1) FEAR

For decades in the field of leadership development, human emotions were just inconveniences that you had to avoid in yourself and ‘deal with’ in other people so that you could get on with the rational business of leading. However, developments in neuroscience, behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology are explaining why human beings just aren’t very good at being purely rational. Emotions are an essential to being a fully functioning human being, especially in a role that involves working with other human beings. If you couldn’t experience emotions, you would be incapable of making even the simplest decision.

If you are a fully functioning leader, you will experience a wide range of emotions as you develop your leadership identity. Whether you seek to embrace or avoid these emotions will determine how quickly you develop and how effective you can become. This is especially true of the negative emotions.

In this series I will discuss six important negative emotions that you are likey to experience as a developing leader, what they mean and how to work with the emotion successfully in order to grow into your full leadership potential.

The first negative emotion we will examine is FEAR.

  • What if I’m wrong about that decision?
  • How can I tell my team member that his work isn’t of an acceptable standard?
  • Why does the CFO want to discuss my budget?
  • When are they going to find out that I don’t really know what I’m doing?

If, as a leader, you are not experiencing fear on a regular basis, you’re doing something wrong. Either you don’t properly appreciate the responsibilities you have, or you’re not taking any responsibility. Either you can’t see the potential risks and consequences of your actions, or your actions are so inconsequential they carry no risk. Either way, you’re unlikely to be a good leader. From Winston Churchill (or possibly Spider-Man) we know that “with great power comes great responsibility”. What neither Churchill nor Spider-Man went on to say is that with great responsibility comes great fear.

In evolutionary terms, fear is what prepares us run quickly enough to escape danger. And running away is precisely what a poor leader does in response to fear. They avoid the awkward conversations. They put off making the risky decisions. When uncertainty comes, they bury their heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away. However, the positive outcome of fear is effective preparation.

Fear is an indicator of our awareness of a present or future risk. The absence of fear is not courage, merely recklessness. In any position of responsibility it is sensible to regularly ask yourself: ‘What do I need to be afraid of here?’ and then prepare accordingly. Susan Jeffers’ classic book counsels you to ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’. A less snappy but more accurate title might be: ‘Make Sure You Feel the Fear, Perform a Good Risk Assessment and then Do It in a Prepared Way’.

Making yourself feel fear is important. As well as looking seriously at all the threats in your SWOT analysis, why not spend some time contemplating how all the things you’ve identified as opportunities could also turn out to be threats. Stare disaster in the face with pre-mortem analyses, then spend an appropriate amount of time working out how you can prepare to reduce the risk or minimise the impact.

So be ready to welcome the sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, tight chest, butterflies in the stomach or whatever physical symptoms fear provokes in you as a signal that preparation time is upon you.


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