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5 Strategies for Leaders to Overcome Fear Effectively

Knight Campbell
February 1, 2024

We can't overcome fear without understanding it

Climbing outdoors in a flow state

Overcoming fear is not so simple. Sometimes fear paralyzes us needlessly, and other times it’s an alarm for us to take action. Leaders need to build literacy about fear and their relationship with it to effectively manage it for themselves and their teams. 

I have learned through years of outdoor expeditions and landing helicopters on Navy destroyers at night that we pay too much attention to the scary things like landing on a tiny ship in a big ocean. We forget to focus on the dangers that are less apparent but far more dangerous like team friction that distracts us during that landing.

In his How I Built This episode, Jim Koch, arguably the father of the American craft beer movement at Sam Adams, said “Some things are scary, but not dangerous. Others are dangerous, but not scary.” This illustrates the difference between risk and fear for leaders. 

We tend to be afraid of our made up ghosts while we fail to manage very real risks around us. The first and most important step to managing fear is to discern between fear and risk.  

Risk is the potential of a bad thing happening measured in terms of probability and severity. Leaders can make a spreadsheet, analyze it, and mitigate it. Fear is a little different. 

Fear is the unquantifiable and often illogical anticipation of a bad thing happening, and it can look like a lot of different things to different people. It can help to use a tool like the flow chart below to figure out the nature of your fear. A fear could be factual, a healthy awareness of a bad outcome such as standing too close to a cliff edge. It could also be a fictional story that holds you back, such as the idea that your boss is out to get you, when in fact they are not. You fear could be about objective dangers (danger exists whether humans are around or not like rocks falling in mountains) or subjective interpersonal issues (like groupthink leading to dangerous decisions). It could be a simmering anxiety like a big project that seems to be slowly going wrong or it could be a short fuse situation like almost stepping on a rattlesnake. The same fear could be mild or terrifying depending on how much food and sleep you recently had. If you are interested in strong and weak situations, check out this blog on leadership capacity

Break down fear to overcome fear effectively.

What does fear look like in the professional world?

Ok, maybe leaders are not headed out to climb cliffs. Leaders still face all kinds of fear that can become crippling. People in positions of authority regularly make risky decisions that impact a lot of other people. Leaders often fear failing to a detrimental level and tend to struggle with imposter syndrome periodically throughout their career. 

Fear of Failure

Leaders who fear failure are more focused on avoiding failing than they are on actually succeeding. This is different than fearing the consequences of failure. For example, worrying that an important sales call won’t go well is appropriate. Worrying that people will think you are bad at sales is fear of failure. 

Fear of failure often results in two adaptations. Some people work much harder than they should for a given outcome. They become perfectionists and waste time and resources on relatively low stakes endeavors. Other people protect themselves by under committing. These people look like high achievers, but hold themselves back from reaching their potential by avoiding goals that could lead to failure. A good salesperson might set a quota that looks great on paper but is 20% under what they could do. 

Isolating the fear of failure in general from the risk of a bad outcome can allow you to address the fear of failure head on and still manage risk appropriately. If you don’t learn to move past fear of failure, the best you can expect when you succeed is a feeling of relief that you did not fail instead of joy in your success. 

Imposter Syndrome

82% of leaders struggle with imposter syndrome, a feeling that people will find out that they are under qualified despite clear objective success. It’s important to know that this only applies when the person is in fact qualified. Often people get promotions and feel out of place or underqualified as they learn their new job. That is simply a steep learning curve. When you know you should feel confident, but you still feel worried that people will figure out that you are a fraud, that’s a problem. You can apply the tips below in that situation to start chipping away at that fear of being “found out.”

What can leaders do to overcome fear?

So what’s our best advice for leaders to overcome their fears and do their jobs as effectively as possible? We offer five strategies to use when confronted with threats and fear as a leader. 

Turn fear into action. Fear can paralyze us, using it to fuel action both breaks the spell and moves us faster. 

Use fear to find flow. We need to move through a struggle phase to access a flow state. We can reframe fear as that phase.  

Focus on the right narrative. Stories have particularly compelling power in our lives. Refocusing on the right narrative allows us to use fear productively. 

Leverage your team. When we leverage everyone’s talents on the team, we can face many more fears together with confidence. 

Generate more capacity or bandwidthTypically we get more afraid when we are tired and hungry. Simply managing our physiology can make many fears go away. 

Use fear to catalyze action

Fear is a good thing. Sometimes it tells us what we need to know but don’t want to hear. Sometimes it makes life exciting. Psychologist Fritz Pearls said, “Fear is excitement without the breath.” Rock climbing puts that theory to the test. When I forget to breathe on a climb, I almost always become paralyzed with fear.

Not long ago my business partner and I were having a typical business meeting, 400’ up the face of Tahquitz Rock. The last section of our climb was a blank face of scary but perhaps not so dangerous slabby granite. I wanted to whimper, to sit on my anchor for the rest of the day, or to find a less frightening path. Instead, I whispered to myself- “butt out, heels down, step,” took a deep breath, and stepped. Guess what, the only thing that happened was forward movement. I repeated the process, totally focused, until I reached the top.

When we start anticipating bad things, fear creeps in. Leaders have an important choice – to become paralyzed (not the most inspiring option) or get back to the present through breathing and action. It sounds woo-woo, but breathing physiologically shifts us out of our flight or fight reaction, activates our prefrontal cortex, and begins the problem-solving process. Every habit needs a cue to kick it off. If you make the feeling of fear a cue to breathe and act, fear becomes an action catalyst instead of a tranquilizer.

Use fear to drop into a flow state

If forward movement isn’t beneficial enough to consider embracing your fears, imagine getting into a flow state more regularly. Flow is an ideal work condition we talk about often at Cairn Leadership. McKinsey found it makes executives five times more effective and DARPA found that flow cuts our effective learning time in half. We are surprised that every leadership development company isn’t doubling down on flow, but I digress.

Here is the fun part, fMRI and blood tests have helped identify distinct stages of the flow process. The first stage is the struggle phase. Enter fear. Fear and the struggle phase result in the same cocktail of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. So, we actually need fear to push us over the edge into a flow state. It may be time to reconsider fear as our enemy and start considering it as a gift. The good news – you don’t need to be on the verge of a giant drop on your mountain bike to spark flow. Maybe that little spike of fear before a work presentation or apprehension before asking for a raise will be just enough to tip you into flow. Who doesn’t want to be five times more effective when negotiating raises?

Link fear to the right narrative

A friend and fellow National Outdoor Leadership School instructor had an amazing technique on long backpacking days in the Alaskan wilderness. She would walk up to a student who was obviously struggling and ask “What story are you telling yourself?” All of a sudden the sore feet and nagging doubt went from reality to a story, one that could just as easily be about a great trail conversation or the immense Alaskan mountains. Paul Zak has done some amazing research on stories, but long story short – they move us. Crafting stories turns out to be a critical skill for leaders. What story are you telling yourself and your team? Is the refrain “can’t” or “will.” Are you on the hero’s journey, or are you a victim? Take some time to examine your fears as a story, and they might just evaporate!

Address fear with your team

Leadership companies talk about resilience a lot these days, and that’s great. Here’s the thing though, you don’t have to be resilient alone. Some people have talent and experience in one place, others shine elsewhere. Building a diverse team allows each person to rise to the occasion when it matches his or her strengths. You as a leader have a responsibility to choose your people like a well-crafted stock portfolio – with good balance for different situations. From many days on tough expeditions, I can tell you the people you choose to rope up with will absolutely carry you through or drag you down when fear arises.

Increase your bandwidth

Good nutrition, fitness, sleep, and intellectual stimulation will allow you to feel more capable in the face of fear. Increasing your exposure to fear and building your competence will dampen your flight or fight response and put you on the 4% challenge curve that allows more access to flow. Read this if you want more tips on increasing your capacity to lead.

Action is the key to overcome fear

In an interview about women leaders and courage, Col DeDe Halfill, USAF Ret. told me that she always takes a second to examine her fears. She asks, “Is this fear telling me something important, or is it simply a false narrative holding me back.” Fear is not a thing to master, overcome, or ignore. Instead mull it over, however briefly. Tease out any embedded risks you could actually mitigate, and then grab the fear that’s left, take a deep breath, and ride it for all it’s worth.

If you take nothing else from this post, take this. Fear doesn’t exist in the present, and action brings us back to the present. If you can create a habit of letting fear catalyze action in your life, you will find yourself both moving forward more often and embracing fear as a positive instead of avoiding challenging circumstances. Let fear tell you what you need to know, and let the rest of the story be just a story. Then be thankful you get to do things challenging enough to feel a little fear.

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