The Myth of Fearless Leadership: How to Lead When You’re Afraid

myth of fearless leadership

The fearless leader fallacy harkens back to the “great man” theory of leadership, which portrayed effective leaders as those who charge fearlessly into the melee to save the day. They were “born to lead” and “looked fear in the face without blinking an eye.”

Maybe this resonates with some folks out there but, for me, it never quite sat right. I served overseas in combat as an officer in the military. I’ve started and grown a company that now employs more people than I could have ever imagined. By all measures I am a successful leader but I am far from fearless. In fact, every time I begin to think I have a clue about what I’m doing, something comes along that frankly, scares the living daylights out me.

I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone. I don’t believe that successful leaders and entrepreneurs are fearless. I believe that the most successful leaders and entrepreneurs among us are just as fearful as the rest of us. What sets these men and women apart is what they do in the face of fear.

Fear Doesn’t Have to Be Your Enemy

myth-fearless-leadershipTo me, being fearless means pushing forward with reckless abandon no matter what the risks. Evolution has seen to it that we as human beings have held onto the emotion of fear for good reason. Fear serves us well. It kept our ancient ancestors from putting themselves in dangerous situations, thus, keeping them alive long enough to reproduce.

Unfortunately, many of the things we fear today are no longer physical threats. Fear of what we perceive to be threats, whether it’s the fear of the unknown or the fear of failure, can be so overwhelming that it paralyzes us.

But fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that you’re pushing the envelope and doing things that take you out of your comfort zone. It means that you care enough about the livelihood of your organization that perceived threats to your sustainability cause an emotional reaction.

Dr. Joey A. Collins, Assistant Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Seattle Pacific University, adds that, “Effective leaders demonstrate a high degree of self-awareness and are mindful of their feelings.  It is not that they don’t feel fear – they do. They are just more aware of their fear and better able to process the threat that is signaling it.”

Fear is not necessarily your enemy. The difference is what you do when confronted by these fears. Here are 4 ways to begin to face your fears as a leader in your organization:

Know that you’re not alone.

It may not be easy to admit that you’re afraid as a leader, but I’ll be the first to step up beside you and tell you that you’re not alone. Leading is an enormous responsibility. You have to make sure you make payroll, keep your customers happy, inspire your team and read and adapt to changes in the market on a daily basis. As an entrepreneur you know all too well that if you don’t stay on top of everything going on, someone out there will seize the opportunity to eat your lunch. That’s enough to make even the most stalwart of us blink from time to time.

Ask yourself honestly, what’s the worst that can happen?

At this point in my career I have come to the conclusion that I am absolutely unemployable. As an entrepreneur for ten years, there is zero percent chance that I’ll ever be able to work for someone else again. Entrepreneurs have no safety net. No backup plan. But when I stop and think about the worst possible scenario, I’m able to manage the fear that generates from these thoughts.

If your worst business nightmare came true, what would happen? Acknowledging this can help you push through the fears that come up when you’re faced with critical decisions.

Acknowledge that failing doesn’t make you a failure.

As a leader and an entrepreneur, it can feel like the world is resting on your shoulders. And with so much riding on your decisions, failing is a tough pill to swallow. But, the truth is that everyone fails at one point or another.

Ask any successful entrepreneur how many times they’ve failed and you’ll probably get a good laugh out of them. It’s not about failing, it’s about what you do as a result of that failure that determines your future.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

One of the greatest ways I’ve found to face my fears is by relying on a strong support network. At the end of the day, responsibility for your decisions falls squarely on your shoulders, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people in your life who you can depend on for guidance and insight.

Asking for help may not come naturally, but by showing some vulnerability and acknowledging that you need help, you’ll open yourself up to many opportunities that may otherwise never be available.

Understand what’s driving your fear and turn it into an advantage.

If you can develop your ability to harness your fear and move through it you set yourself on a path that few ever follow.

Tim Smith, President of Patriot Commercial Cleaning out of Saint Louis, MO is an Army combat veteran who has grown his business despite facing numerous challenges that would have stymied most people. “You have to try to meet that fear head on,” says Smith, “but it’s easier said than done. I’ve found that it does get easier with practice, though. The fears still exist but you can deal with them better because you’ve faced them before.”

Be aware that your reaction to threats will be noticed and modeled by your team.

“Leaders are better able to choose how to express their fear to others,” added Dr. Collins. Let’s face it. If you run around with your hair on fire when threatened, it doesn’t give your team a warm and fuzzy feeling. Effective leaders are able to gauge their responses and react most appropriately.

Maybe this is the root of the fearless leader fallacy. As leaders effectively manage their fear in front of others, the assumption becomes that they, in fact, are fearless.

It’s all about managing the dynamic tension that exists with your fear. On one side, you must be confident enough in your abilities and your value that you can go to market and win. On the other side, you must continue to push your limits so that you never quite feel comfortable.

Being able to manage this tension in the day-to-day is difficult. There are days where you may lean more heavily on one side than the other, and that’s okay. The trouble begins when you let yourself swing too far to one side or the other for too long and begin to operate only from that single perspective.

It is your choice as a leader and entrepreneur to determine how you will react in the face of fear. Respect that fear is a natural emotion, baked into our DNA, but don’t let it stop you. Your reaction to that fear is what will separate you from the pack.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

Culture Change is a Complex Process

Make sense of it with actionable advice from experts on the front lines.

Sign up to receive our articles as they publish. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Chris Cancialosi

Partner at gothamCulture
Chris Cancialosi is a recognized expert in the field of leadership and organizational development with particular focus on the leader’s role in shaping high-performing culture.
Chris effectively combines his operational field experience with his knowledge of organizational psychology to provide unique and practical solutions to today’s ever changing business landscape.
Chris Cancialosi