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Facing Your Fears As A Leader

Leadership is complex and as we know, experiencing fearful situations is an inherent part of any leadership journey. 

Matt Brubaker and Foster Mobley in their Harvard Business Review Article: Don’t Let Your Inner Fears Limit Your Career provide reassurance that fear is a natural and universal human phenomenon however, they remind us that stifling fear doesn’t make it go away. In fact, failing to address it can lead to highly unproductive and dysfunctional behaviours.

No one is immune from fear however insightful leaders can recognise what factors or situations trigger feelings of fear and develop strategies and tactics to manage the fear as opposed to avoiding it.

Leading an educational institution provided me with many fearful/filled experiences  – ensuring the safety of children attending school camps being right up there  –  and while I was not always appreciative of this at the time, I have definitely learnt the benefits of facing my fears positively.

Before I outline various strategies to assist you to manage fear as a leader, I think it is important for us to take the time and reflect on what constitutes a fearful situation for us (you) and what things help move us through the fear zone in the past. Developing this level of self-awareness upfront is the foundation in the path to effectively managing through fear.

So how can we empower leaders to face fear in a productive and manageable way to ensure they can carry out their roles effectively? Below are some strategies and tactics that have worked well for me:

Normalise fear

Acknowledge that being fearful is a normal part of life especially as a leader.

Embrace fear

Stop avoiding fear and start embracing it. This could involve doing something every day no matter how big or small that makes you stand up to your fears, for example, having a courageous conversation with a tricky member of your team. Another strategy I use to face fears is to record a current fear down each day as well as a strategy to overcome it. This technique makes me accountable to not only facing my fears by also learning from the actions I am putting in place to deal with these fears. 

I really like author and leadership expert Seth Godin’s take on fear. He states that if you try and make fear go away, it only gets stronger. Godin suggests a solid alternative. Instead of trying to avoid fear, dance with it! This doesn’t mean we welcome fear into our lives however if you are faced with fear, look at it in the eye and invite it to waltz. It will soon get bored and leave! 

Daily affirmations

Affirmations are an effective strategy to train your brain around improvement however they will only be effective if they relate to your current predicament and are repeated throughout the day. I often write them on a small piece of card and keep them in my pocket so I can pull it out and read it throughout the day to remind myself what I want to focus on.

Examples: 

(Note that these are recorded in the current tense to train your brain that you are already doing these things).

“I am a courageous leader” 

“I am brave enough to deal with challenges”

“I am handling anything that comes my way” 

“I am a confident leader”

Breathing exercises. 

Breathing strategies are an effective way to physically handle fearful situations and are commonly used especially by leaders in organisations. One technique I have used to reduce fears (and to bring my heart rate down!) when leading, is breathing in through my nose for 4 seconds, holding for four seconds and then breathing out through my mouth for 4 seconds. Repeat 10-15 times. 

Avoid overthinking fearful situations.

Often if people (especially leaders) are faced with fearful situations, they find it difficult to ‘switch off’. One strategy I was shown was to describe the fear and write it down in an exercise book or journal. This ensures it gets out of your head. The next step is to place the exercise book on a shelf and ‘park it’ until you are ready to address it.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

Effective leaders in organisations continually forecast ahead in terms of fearful situations. This ensures they cover all bases and avoid becoming fearful of what’s ahead. This is a really effective strategy that also gives employees confidence in terms of a leaders ability to make decisions.

A ‘managing fear mindset’ does not however happen overnight however in my experience implementing some useful strategies to deal with fear as a leader is well worth the investment.

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