Leading Through Fear
Fear is a natural part of leadership and I’m sharing three lessons on how to feel the fear to become a better leader.
Last Saturday, I had a surfing accident on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I have a bruised face and a black eye, however, I’m grateful that there is no permanent damage to my face or my eye. Right after the accident, I was sobbing and shaking on the beach, gripped by pain and fear.
Twenty four hours later, I started experiencing flashes and black spots in my left eye, leading to extreme anxiety and fear of losing my vision. Happily I’m fine, having been checked out by talented opthamologists.
Bruises will fade, the resilience and lessons persist. Fear is a natural part of leadership and I’m sharing three lessons on how to feel the fear to become a better leader.
1. Fear is normal. Fear is part of leading.
Many of us want to think that our leaders are fearless and always have the right answers in the face of uncertainty. This expectation makes it tough to be the leader. Leaders feel that we have to be perfect, to have our acts together, and always know what to do next. If we feel any fear, the first instinct is often to bury it, to ignore this inconvenient emotion and instead move into action and problem-solving.
That’s not the healthiest way of addressing fear. Unrecognized fear, like the unacknowledged elephant in the room, will pop up later, perhaps as anxiety and sleepless nights.
Instead, take another approach. Recognize that fear is a normal part of life and leadership. We all felt it collectively during the unknowns from the early months of 2020 when we had very little understanding of COVID-19. Fear hits us all whether we’re the the CEO or the intern, the dad or the first responder.
Consider feeling your fear.
- If your first response is to cry, hold your pets tight, or call your mom, it’s okay. Go with it.
- Notice where the fear manifests in your body. For many people, it’s a constriction in the jaw, shoulders,or stomache. For others, it’s a tightness in their throat, or the feeling of carrying a heavy weight on their back.
- You may want to verbalize the fear to a trusted friend, or write it in a journal. It’s okay that the fear sounds ridiculous. Fear is not rational.
- Sometimes fear also morphs into other emotions. It’s normal to laugh or make a joke about it. Humor helps disperse the tension.
“Fear is excitement without the breath.”
— Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy*
The physical feelings of fear are similar to excitement. It is helpful to focus on the present and pay attention to your breath. The simply act of breathing in and out, focusing on the feelings of fear in your body, is grounding.
For more on controlling emotions, watch this 18 minute TED talk with Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett for techniques on how you can influence whether you’re feeling excitement or fear with a change in perspective… and lots of practice.
2. Consider the Best and Worst Cases
When we’re in fear, our brains can get stuck in an unhealthy cognitive loop. One technique that helps me is to actively do research to consider both the best and the worst cases, and then to anchor on the ones that are most probable.
One of my clients had done a bad job with a leadership team presentation. We went through the possible worst cases:
- My boss is disappointed. He’ll never trust me with presenting again.
- I made a fool of myself. I let down my team. They won’t work hard for me any more.
- The strategy will get rejected and we’ll have lost 3 months of work.
- I’m going to be fired.
And the possible best cases:
- My boss and I will become closer as he gives me feedback, and we build trust
- I’ve learned that this presentation method doesn’t work. Next time I’ll send a pre-read, or have separate conversations with key stakeholders to get their buy-in ahead of time.
- The next presentation will go better.
Listing out the different possibilities calms the mental loop of fearful self-recrimination. Simply stating out some of the worst fears — e.g. I’m going to be fired — lets us realize that these are improbable outcomes. Instead, generating many possibilities helps to focus the mind. From these possibilities, a next step can be generated, for example, to hold a neutral retrospective with the boss or the team to learn from this experience.
A related tool is Tim Ferriss’ Fear Setting exercise that similarly uses your brain to go through a series of “what if”s.
3. Fear Doesn’t Last Forever
On Sunday night, I experienced light flashes, large floaters, and black spots in my injured eye. I was able to talk to an on-call opthamologist who walked me through the worst case (surgery for a detached retina) and the best case (vitreous jelly knocked around which will resolve itself) scenarios. I was scheduled to go into their practice at 9am on Monday morning.
That morning, I woke up scared. I was afraid of going blind. In the car ride to their practice, I was hyperventilating and having trouble breathing. At the office, I filled out paperwork… and then waited. My eyes were dilated, so I could no longer look at screens as a distraction. I waited to be processed by a first nurse… waited some more… and then saw a second nurse.
More waiting… almost five hours in total. In the last 30 minutes before I saw the doctor, about six hours after I’d woken up in fear, I noticed that my fear was gone. It had turned into boredom, impatience, irritation, and finally goofiness as I took selfies with the medical equipment.
The fear shifted over those six hours. When you feel the emotions rather than suppressing them, they will naturally change over time.
Do you remember that sense of fear you felt at the start of the pandemic? There was a period where some of us were quarantining groceries and deliveries at the front door for 12 hours, and severely sheltering-in-place.
Over the past year and a half, we’ve gotten more information and gotten used a different way of life. The fear has shifted as we settle into habits and keep experiencing work and home.
Fear doesn’t last forever. When you lean into the fear and accept that it’s there, the emotion will eventually change. Change is a part of leadership and of being human.
Fear is a normal part of leadership. We all feel it when we face adversity and uncertainty. Feel the fear rather than suppressing it. Three reminders through this process are 1. Know that fear is normal, 2. Consider the best and worst cases, and 3. Appreciate that fear doesn’t last forever.
*Thank you to Jim Herman for reminding me of this quote