Senior leaders, and especially CEOs, are typically seen as stoic, fearless personalities. Fear is not something people believe leaders experience, much less something that plagues them. Yet, the ‘average’ senior leader knows fear all too well.
Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review by Roger Jones affirms the reality of fear in the life of a CEO. “While few executives talk about them, deep and uncontrolled private fears can spur defensive behaviors that undermine how they and their colleagues set and execute company strategy,” says Jones.
The 5 most common fears in leaders
In his study, Jones learned that participants feared the following, in descending order:
- Being found incompetent. This fear tends to undermine relations with other executives.
- Underachieving. This can lead to bad risks in attempts to overcompensate.
- Appearing too vulnerable.
- Being politically attacked by coworkers. This breeds mistrust and cautious behavior.
- Appearing foolish. This can limit the willingness to speak up.
If you’re an executive reading this, you can probably relate to at least one of these fears. That’s why addressing and overcoming fears should be the goal of every senior leader — not only for the risk it poses to the company but also for the health risks to the individual.
How to overcome leadership fears
Overcoming any fear is a long process, one that requires a lot of self-awareness and willingness to change. If you’re wondering how you can address your own leadership fears to become an even better leader, here are 5 steps to get you there:
- Be honest with yourself. The fears listed above aren’t ones we’re born with. You can get a lot closer to healing just by being honest about the source of your fears. Simply asking yourself, “Why am I afraid?” or “What happened in the past that makes me feel this way?” will do wonders for your psyche.
- Get specific. Being organized or a “planner” has its benefits, the most notable of which is the control it provides. Fear is often born out of a lack of control, so thoroughly planning out how we will approach a situation assuages some of those fears. When you begin to feel fear, grab a pen and make a plan for how you are going to work through it.
- Visualize. Can you visualize what it is like to conquer a situation that makes you fearful? Our brains work in such a way that, once we allow ourselves to visualize success, we are better positioned to actually achieve it. Dealing with Fear offers a great visualization technique you can use to overcome fear as a leader.
- Talk it out. Sometimes, fear becomes so ingrained that we simply aren’t able to manage it alone. If you find fear to be consuming, seek out a confidant. Many of us are so afraid to talk about fear because we’re afraid of appearing incapable or overly emotional. Yet, the places fear can take a person can produce outcomes far worse than those that come from seeking assistance before it’s too late. Choose a friend, a sister, brother, coworker, or even a paid professional. Talking it out allows us to acknowledge, reason, deal, and recover so we can be better leaders.
- Let it go. Eventually, there comes that time when you must accept that you’ve reached this point in your career for a reason. You also have to accept that you are doing the best you can (if, in fact, you actually are), and being fearful is only holding you back. Once you reach this point, let the fear go.
As a bonus tip for overcoming fear, I also recommend taking action. What’s the one thing you can do right now that will help clear your mind of the fear and let your true leadership skills shine through? Whatever it is, do that.
“Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will.” — W. Clement Stone