fear and the case of the missing leader

by | Jun 7, 2017 | Leadership

What if I were to tell you that there are leaders missing in your organisation? That there are voices, ideas, opinions and talent that are not showing up?

I’m not talking about a headcount issue or a rash of absenteeism. I’m talking about a powerful force that stops leaders from expressing themselves fully : fear.

The nature of fear

Our sense of fear developed to keep us alive. As Rick Hanson so beautifully puts it, our ancestors could make 2 kinds of mistakes : (1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one and (2) thinking there was no tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first? Needless anxiety. The cost of the second? Death.

Unsurprisingly, we evolved to make the first mistake over and over again to avoid ever making the second one.

The modern-day tiger in the bushes

We are much less likely these days to be living in fear of our lives, yet the fear that “there might be a tiger in the bushes” has now morphed into “I might be criticised”, “I might fail”, “I might look stupid”.

A well-known manifestation of this is Impostor Syndrome, or the fear of being found out, which tends to afflict high-achievers. It shows up as a voice in your head, a bit like a radio station that is on all the time. Its basic patter is probably something like, “You aren’t good enough. Are you sure you can do this? You need to work harder and faster.”

And it gets louder on Special Occasions. For example, presenting at the monthly company meeting or closing a deal with an important client. It’s saying something like, “Who do you think you are? You’re talking absolute rubbish. You can see it on their faces.”

The real cost of fear

The voice of fear has a positive intention : to keep us safe. It can be pretty effective in holding us back from saying or doing anything which it perceives will endanger us. However, its perception of what is unsafe in today’s world is way out of proportion with reality.

And the real cost of its impact on the leadership of organisations is not what we CAN see but what we can’t…

  • The missing conversation – for example, a leader holding back from reaching out to a senior stakeholder because Fear says, “Why would they want to talk to you?”
  • The missing voice in a meeting – an idea, a challenge, an opinion that could change the course of an organisation is left unsaid because Fear says, “You’re going to look stupid if you say that.”
  • The missing offer – a multi-million pound business opportunity that doesn’t happen because Fear says, “You’ll fail”.
  • The missing request – asking for additional resource, because Fear says, “Who do you think you are?”
  • The missing decision – this one often causes a bottleneck for the teams below because Fear wants the leader to make sure it really is the right decision, whatever “right” is, to avoid imagined humiliation.

And ultimately…the missing leader

Fear may be keeping leaders in your organisation – and maybe you – from standing up for what they believe in, from rising above the noise, from making the time and space to create something that nobody has thought of yet, from reaching out to others to make things happen, even when they don’t know the answers.

What would be possible if your leaders were to express themselves fully? What could that mean for growth, for innovation, for engagement in your organisation?

What do you think?

Related posts : 
are you afraid of being found out?
is perfectionism cramping your leadership style?

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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