As Yoda famously said, “Fear is the path to the dark side”. For leaders, that’s certainly true. Fear can turn leaders into angry dictators, it can lead them to sabotage their own team, and it can keep them from taking the next step in their own careers.
When we discuss leadership development, we don’t talk about the basic behaviours that can make or break a leader. We focus on things like delegation, strategic thinking, and communication. These are important, but good leadership also needs a strong foundation. It’s assumed that anyone who has moved into a leadership role already has the basics under control, and in some cases this may true. However, if we think about the reasons why leaders fail, we can often trace the problem back to a rocky foundation.
One foundational practice is the ability of a leader to manage her own fear. We all manage fear to a certain extent on a daily basis, even though we don’t realize it. If we can identify and manage fear when it appears, we’ll be more successful in life, and in leadership.
Let’s back up and look at the basics of fear.
Fear is generated by the oldest part of our brains – sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. This part of our brain has one job, and that’s to make sure we survive. The reptilian brain is directing us when we talk about “fight or flight”, but it’s other mantra is “lack or attack”. All of our fears stem back to either lacking something, or being attacked. Our reptilian brain wants us to be mediocre, because mediocre is safe. It gets alarmed when we think about doing anything unusual, or anything even slightly risky. It will do everything it can to keep us from moving out of the narrow confines of it’s definition of “safe”.
The cerebral cortex is the newest part of the brain, and some say that it’s still developing. One of it’s key functions is the ability to visualize. We can use the cerebral cortex to calm the reptilian brain if we are able to observe the fear when it comes, and use our evolved brain to rationalize it.
So how can we develop a firmer leadership practice around fear? If you can take a few moments to recognize that you’re in a state of fear and observe what’s happening in your mind, you can use your higher thinking to stay in control.
1. Talk to your fear. Seriously, ask it why it’s here. For example, you are asked to deliver a presentation at a high-level conference. You’re thrilled to be asked but also filled with fear. Enough fear that you’re considering saying no. Find a quiet place to have a conversation with your fear. Ask, “Fear, why don’t you want me to give this presentation?” The first answers will probably be obvious. But keep asking why. If one of the first answers is, “You don’t have enough time to prepare”, ask “Why does that matter?” By continuing to ask why, your fear may eventually reveal that you are afraid of making a fool of yourself. Remember, your fear wants you to be mediocre. Your lizard brain can’t handle the risk involved in a high-profile presentation. Figuring out the origin of the fear can help you manage it.
Having a coach to guide you through the conversation with your fear can help you get to the root more quickly. Journaling is also a good way to record the conversation so you can use the information later.
2. Use what you’ve learned from the conversation to manage your fear. Say that you decide, despite your fear, to do the presentation. As the day gets closer, the fear comes back. You already know that one reason the fear is there is to prevent you from making a fool of yourself. You can mitigate that by blocking off time to practice the presentation so you feel like you’re prepared. Your brain will be reassured that you are not in trouble, and the fear will back off.
3. Visualize yourself in the middle of the fearful situation. Do not, under any circumstances, visual yourself doing poorly! Your brain is very influenced by visualization and you don’t want to give it the wrong idea. Spend time every day picturing yourself giving an amazing presentation. Imagine every detail, right down to the audience applause, and what you’re wearing. This will help the fear to see the presentation as a positive, unthreatening event, and you’ll feel less panic.
4. Imagine the time after you’ve successfully faced your fear. This is a great visualization to use right before the event, when your brain is working overtime with fear. Picture how you will feel, how you appear, how you will behave. In the case of the presentation, imagine people congratulating you afterward. Imagine your boss telling you that you did a great job, or you gaining a reputation as an expert in your field. This is really dangling a carrot in front of brain to keep you moving through the fear.
Basic leadership fears may be showing up for you in some common ways:
· My staff/colleagues won’t respect or like me.
· I’m not prepared for the work I need to do so I might look foolish.
· My boss doesn’t think I’m doing a good job.
· I’m afraid to deal with conflict.
These techniques can be applied to any situation where fear is a factor. Sometimes it’s hard to identify and observe our own emotions – we’re too close to see the forest for the trees. That’s where a coach can help you sort out the issues and solve the underlying problem, so you don't go to the dark side.