Put Fear in its Place

Fear is an intensely human experience. We’ve all felt it. We probably learn to live with most of it. But the emotion often translates into crazy, irrational behavior. For an individual, that’s one thing. But what happens when a team or an organization hangs in the balance?

I’ve become convinced that fear is the single factor most capable of derailing a leader’s effectiveness. Responsibilities, pressure, visibility – all of these factors tend of “pile on” over time. Sooner or later we all need to come to grips with the fears inherent with the position.

Fear is a given. Our response to fear determines the outcome. It takes courage to lead.

Below are a sample of common fears leaders face – along with some common reactions and opportunities for response.

Burying head in sand


Reaction: Refusing to acknowledge reality

The unknown can be a crippling fear for many leaders. Think about how much we’re unsure of. We only experience life moment by moment, therefore the future is ultimately unknown – no matter how we plan for it. We’ve never had more information (or more access to information), yet it’s almost impossible to be sure we have all of the right information to guarantee an outcome. Change is a part of life and the speed of change has never been faster.

Instead of avoiding change or stalling important decisions, accept it. We don’t have to embrace change – but unless we embrace the reality of change, we’ll stunt our personal and organizational growth.

Responses: Accept the reality that change and uncertainty are part of life; make decisions

Appearing Naive (or Incompetent)

Reaction: Lack of candor; working in silos

No one wants to look dumb. (I know I don’t!) This puts me at odds in the instances I feel dumb – when encountering a new project or comparing myself to other people in a given situation. It’s often the feeling (rather than the fact) that is the real barrier.

No one has all the answers. Each of us have a different level of experience and development. It’s the candid sharing of our opinions and feedback (in appropriate ways) that provide enough input for the team to make informed decisions. Group think is dangerous, but it’s the status quo when team members are afraid to appear naive. Not only that, it’s a massive impediment to the creative process.

Responses: Demonstrate vulnerability; go first; ask for help; acknowledge weaknesses


Reaction: Playing it safe, abdicating responsibility

I’ve noticed that the fear of criticism often exceeds the fear of failure. Whether it’s a critical moment in a sports game, boardroom or political office, leaders opt to play it safe instead of doing what creates the greatest chance to be successful. When the plan fails, the blame is easier to handle (or at least deflect).

This simply isn’t leadership.

Response: Take counsel from trusted sources; refuse to entertain the naysayers

Being Wrong

Reaction: Refusing to make decisions

Our reaction to decisions is an interesting phenomenon. We’re often tempted to determine their correctness immediately the fact. The outcome determines whether the decision was “correct” or not. But the result of a decision usually isn’t binary (e.g. simply “right” or “wrong”) – and there are so often additional factors at play, including random chance. That being said, so many times the consequences of our decisions are short-term in nature. It takes courage to make a decision that could result in a bad outcome. But refusing to make decisions (and therefore pushing them up to the next level) creates a bottleneck at the top of the chain of command and limits the effectiveness of the individual leader.

Responses: Have a decision-making process; have the courage to make the decisions that are appropriate at your leadership level

Limited Opportunities

Reaction: Excuses; comparing with others; victim mentality

Each person has a unique background. We have differing levels of intellect, strengths and skills. Some have had every resource at their disposal. Others had to learn the hard way. We all have different ceilings as well.

The problem with focusing on our limitations is that it’s counterproductive. It takes the focus off what we can do and puts it on factors outside our control. Get more information, create an Individual Development Plan and keep working hard.

Responses: Create goals; focus on continuous growth


Reaction: Refusing to try; excuses; self-sabotage

Ultimately, the fear of failure prevents far too leaders from even leaving the starting gate. Unfortunately, failure is pervasive. Playing it safe won’t inoculate us from the reality of potential failure. As Jim Carrey famously said, “You can fail at something you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance doing something you love.” Leadership may not be “what you love” when the going gets tough, but your love of the people you lead – and responsibility to see the job to its conclusion – should be enough to move you to act.

Responses: Act

Colin Powell famously advised, “Never take counsel from your fears.” He knew firsthand the difficulties of leading when the stakes were high – in a high pressure and visible role. If you are a leader, you will experience fear. How you respond will determine your effectiveness.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, coach, facilitator and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective.