11 Reasons Fear Screws Up Your Leadership and What To Do About It

It's a question that has perplexed me for many years:  With the wealth of leadership wisdom available, why do we continue to struggle to lead well? Why do employee engagement rates continue to hover around 30% despite the obvious advantages for leaders who choose to lead well?

The more time I spend with managers and leaders, the more I see three reasons aspiring leaders struggle:

  1. They don't know how.
  2. They know how, but fear gets in the way.
  3. They know how, but pride gets in the way.

From our work with Winning Well, my co-author Karin and I have found that after a lack of skills, fear, manifesting as insecurity, lack of confidence, and pressure, are the most common obstacles to effective leadership.

11 Ways Fear Cripples Your Leadership

Healthy human beings experience fear. It’s a part of the gig.

When you lead, you’ll have anxiety and fear as you face unexpected problems and take risks to move your team forward.

It’s okay - in fact it's natural and normal to have these fears, but if you don’t learn how to manage the fears that come with leadership, you'll succumb to shortcuts that compel, but don't influence. What makes these mistakes more dangerous is that they can seem rational at the time. Soon, you'll find your soul slipping away. 

Here are 11 ways fear can cripple your leadership. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  1. You avoid dealing with the very thing that needs attention.

You know that unease that creeps up and prompts you to procrastinate or avoid doing something? Listen to it! But instead of doing what it says (avoiding the problem), use it as a signal flare – the thing you feel like avoiding is exactly what should have your full attention. Dive in and get it done.

  1. You lose credibility

Even if you don’t tell them what’s going on, your team will figure it out. When you’re paralyzed with fear, your leadership credibility slowly erodes.

  1. You feel like you’re all alone.

When you’re scared, you forget your team. This one is particularly brutal because it cuts you off from one of your greatest strengths. Your team is smart; working together, you can get it done…but not if fear isolates you.

  1. You react and create chaos.

Have you ever had a squirrel get inside your house? They are scared and panicked. They over-react to every little noise or motion, scampering back and forth, climbing up the walls, knocking over everything. It’s chaos!

When we get scared, we can do the same thing and leave our teams frustrated and confused about their own priorities and expectations. Not sure if this is happening to you? Take the free Winning Well Assessment and learn what is working for you - and what's not.

Free for Lead Change Group readers! Discover your strengths and areas where you can be more effective. Use company code: LCG
  1. You demotivate others.

Fear only motivates for a little while. When our teams are confused and we’re reactive, it sucks the energy out of them.

  1. You give up your ability to create the future.

When you act out of fear, you aren’t working toward a positive vision of the future. You’re just trying to avoid problems.

  1. You clamp down on information.

In the absence of information, people will jump to the most pathological conclusion possible.

And yet, when you work out of fear, you often stop the flow of information (because you worry about communicating the wrong thing or aren’t sure who you can trust). This feeds into the isolation that cuts you off from the very people that can help you the most.

  1. You withdraw or lash out.

This behavior goes by many names. You’ve probably heard it called our flight or fight response. Kerry Patterson calls it our tendency to silence or violence.

Whatever you call it, I’m sure you know it: when you’re scared, you protect yourself – either through hunkering down in reinforced concrete bunkers or by launching an all out attack.

Whether you run and hide or go on the attack, it cripples your leadership credibility.

  1. You avoid risks and personal growth.

When you’re worried about making mistakes, you don’t take risks. When you don’t take healthy risks, you stop learning new things…and you stop learning altogether. Leaders who don’t grow lose credibility.

  1. You don’t apologize, own, and correct mistakes.

When you do make a mistake, if you’re frightened of being seen as a failure, you might not own up to it and apologize.

Of course, everyone already knows and so once again you fritter away your credibility.

  1. You inspire fear in others.

This one is really bad: leaders recreate themselves.

Your team is learning from you. If you stay in fear-mode, it won’t be long before your team acts the same way and now you’ve multiplied the mistakes on this list.

Reclaim Your Power

If more than one of those mistakes sound familiar, it’s time to conquer your fear and be the leader your team needs you to be.

  1. Listen to your fear.

You’ll never get rid of it – fear is a normal emotion and we experience it for a reason.

What is it trying to telling you? What is it warning you about? Take some time to examine what’s going on and understand it. Just listening to your own thoughts and emotions will help. Then you can begin addressing those things.

  1. Connect with your team.

When you’re alone or isolated, things grow out of proportion. Reconnecting with your team will help you gain healthy perspective and engage many more minds in problem solving.

  1. Give yourself power.

If fear leads to victimhood, one of the best antidotes is to re-empower yourself. Do this by asking two simple questions:

What are the results I want to achieve?

What can I do to accomplish those results?

  1. Examine the actual consequences (not just what you imagine)

Your mind can play tricks on you and grow imagined problems into epic proportions.

What is it you’re scared of? What would actually happen if that came to pass? What would you do then? If you can find people who have been in the same situations and learn what they did, that’s even better. The point is to reduce the imagined problem to real-life and know you can handle it.

  1. Leave Room for Mistakes

When you plan, count on making mistakes. Allow some margin of error and know where your error-limits really are.

Perfectionists and high achievers sometimes let fear paralyze them because they fear making a mistake. But even engineers sending a ship to another planet know the acceptable margin of error.

Mistakes are a good thing. They mean you’re trying something new and stretching. Use them well – they’ve got so much to teach you if you’ll let them.

  1. Practice

Overcoming your leadership fears takes time and practice. In the future, situations that caused you two weeks of anxiety will only give you two hours of serious thought.

  1. Start small

What is the easiest step you can take? Is it sharing your concerns with your team? Is it looking for someone who’s been in the same situation? Is it writing down the situation you need to address?

Take one step. Then another.

  1. Get help

Sometimes we need help.

Get it! Don’t let your fear of being seen as weak or inadequate keep you from getting the help you need to be effective.

The best professional athletes in the world have private coaches and sports psychologists. If they can do that for what is essentially a game, aren’t you worth even more?

Your Turn

Left unchecked, fear will cripple your leadership and either keep you from inspiring others with confidence or drive you to insecurity where power and control reign. Please join in the discussion below.

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