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  • Ed Locher

True Leaders Channel Their Fear

Leading can be scary. Taking responsibility for the success/failure of any endeavor comes with all kinds of risks. Obstacles, seen or unseen, have the potential to delay or stop progress. People, by their very nature, are unpredictable. Even with the best of intentions, the stress of forging a new path will cause people to respond in constructive, and sometimes destructive, ways. It is a daunting prospect, to lead, and anyone that claims to be immune to fear has probably never risked anything of value.

So why then do people want leadership positions? The obvious answer is that there are laurels to be collected and rewards to be reaped. There is also a desire for recognition that can’t be ignored. This typically comes with a lot of hard work, clear goals, and determination. The opportunity to build or discover something new is a powerful incentive to most. Personal ambition and a thirst for remuneration, power, responsibility drives others.

Whatever the motivation, taking the lead means dealing with uncertainty, doubt, and especially fear. What separates the great leaders from the rest is how they channel these emotions into constructive activity. They do not let the fear paralyze their ability to make decisions, nor do they convert the uncertainty into negativity or aggression. Rather they embrace the opportunity to learn and create, actively seek assistance from every angle, and calmly and rationally address the unexpected twists and turns of discovery. Looking at two examples from my own career can offer some insight into how this can play itself out in real life.

In the first example, a peer was given responsibility for a functional area for which they had little to no previous experience. It was a growth opportunity granted by our manager, and the entire team went into it with eyes wide open knowing that there would be some growing pains. This individual immediately changed many of the behaviors that had earned him the right to get this assignment in the first place. He ceased to be collaborative, instead turning inwards to solve many of the new challenges with which he was faced, making blanket decisions and expecting others to adhere to them. He was intelligent and capable, but his inner doubts crippled his ability to be effective in the new role. It took over a year for this person to become comfortable enough in their new role to revert back to his original, highly effective self.

Contrast that with a situation where I asked a woman on my team to manage a new program that had recently been built from scratch. There wasn’t an existing playbook, and she didn’t have any personal experience in leading this type of program. Her approach was to seek insight from every corner of the organization, offering and asking for support, beating the bushes to identify anyone with knowledge that could help. She knew what she didn’t know and was confident enough in her abilities to expose this vulnerability to others. They responded as most will in similar circumstances, by doing everything in their power to help. She was understandably nervous about taking on the new position, but within 4-6 weeks she had built up enough knowledge that she could effectively lead the program and steered it successfully for 2 years, achieving every goal set before her along the way.

Every big promotion in my own career path has come with a healthy dose of fear. Would I be able to meet the demands of the new position? Did I know enough to be successful? Would this be the time I learned where my limits are? And I still have those thoughts today. Very recently I was having a conversation with a senior leader and she asked me “What about the role scares you”? I had a list. A long list, and that’s ok. Because as I’ve discovered, trying new things that lie outside your comfort zone comes with risk, but if you’re willing to accept the fact that you don’t know everything that you need before you start, and that you’ll need lots of allies and support along the way, the fear can be the fuel that drives your success.

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