We all recall when President Franklin Roosevelt answered the devastations of the attack on Pearl Harbor by telling the nation, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I want to suggest that this was as true for the nation as it is for your leadership today.
I have learned an important truth about leaders as I have coached them and helped them deal with crises. Fear is a cancer to great leadership. When fear rules a person, even if only in a single area of their life, it knocks them off balance, it deforms the way they lead, and it can weaken them so that all that they do is diminished.
Let me list some specific reasons all this is true.
1. We tend to run from what we fear. If we fear confrontation, for example, we won’t deal with the difficult personal issues that damage our firms. We’ll procrastinate. We’ll throw ineffective solution at the problems. We’ll erect elaborate structures to look like we are addressing issues when we aren’t. So, fear robs us of effectiveness by making us cowards in the face of responsibility.
2. Fear exhausts us. Consider for a moment how much you think about what you fear. You may not tell even the closest people to you, but you ponder what you fear as you lay your head on your pillow at night. Your fears give birth to worries and you carry those worries as burdens most every day. This produces weariness. It produces distraction. It diminishes you in every area of life.
3. Fear leads to dishonesty. I know an executive who had false information on his resume. His fear of exposure caused him to avoid any situation that would lead to too much scrutiny. He wouldn’t involve his department in valuable national programs. He refused speaking events that might have enhanced his firm’s stature. He reduced the importance of resumes in his department. His firm suffered, and the lies he had to tell to avoid disclosing his real motives led to dishonesty in other areas of his life. He eventually destroyed his job, his marriage, and his relationships with his children. Why? Because dishonesty spread throughout his life from the lies on his resume.
4. Fear begets fear. If you accept a fear, give it place and even protect it—and I mean this in the context of leadership—then other fears will arise. Fear gives birth to fear in the same way that lies give birth to more lies and bitterness gives birth to further bitterness. Making peace with fear leads to the spread of fear, and this makes for deformed leadership and a miserable life.
What I want you to do then is a fear inventory. What, in a leadership context, are you afraid of? Where do you recognize yourself in what I’ve said above? List your fears. Admit them to yourselves and others. Declare war on them. Go hard against them. You know how. You just haven’t decided to do it yet. And get the help you need. Great leadership is just ahead if you do.