Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Everyone gets scared and overwhelmed at times; it is unavoidable.
What are leaders commonly afraid of?
In my own experience as a leader over the past decades, I have most commonly encountered the following types of fears:
Fear of not being good enough
Fear of being in over your head (overwhelmed)
Fear of failure or not producing desired results
Fear of being criticized
Fear of not being a good communicator
Fear of making difficult decisions
Fear of responsibility
Do a few of these look familiar to you?
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions, which can lead to several negative outcomes for your health (as it generates stress), your leadership effectiveness, and the quality of your decisions.
Additionally, as your actions affect others around you, they can be a major source of stress and frustration to your team(s) and family.
Worse, as Yoda (Star Wars) wisely stated:
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Identifying with our fearful thoughts, and believing they are true, gives them the power to hold us back and generates a feedback loop of negative thoughts and emotions. One negative thought triggers another, and amplifies our fearful state of mind, triggering a vicious cycle.
Fear is not always obvious and can be disguised in other negative emotions, such as startle, worry, anxiety, doubt, nervousness, insecurity, or distrust.
Not everyone will experience this type of fear in the same way and symptoms run along a spectrum from mild to extremem. We can distinguish between physical and emotional symptoms.
Emotional symptoms may include:
intense feeling of panic or anxiety
overwhelming need to escape a situation that produces the fear
feeling detached from yourself
feeling like you’ve lost control over a situation
thinking that you may die or pass out
generally feeling powerless over your fear
Physical symptoms may include:
unusually fast heart rate
tightness or pain in your chest
shaking sensations or trembling
lightheadedness or dizziness
hot or cold flashes
Besides fear there is a plethora of other negative emotions. For a complete taxonomy of those I recommend exploring the Negative Emotion Typology. I encourage you to study these emotions in more detail so that you can become better aware of them.
Do a quick reflection:
How often per day do you identify with worryful thoughts (rarely, sometimes, a lot, constantly)?
If you want to dig in deeper, I encourage you to do an experiment for one day, where you write down (on paper or your smartphone) all your worryful (or negative) thoughts as they arise. Then reflect in the evening. This can be an eye opening exercise.
When growing up, there are typically situations and experiences you made that cause fear to arise naturally. For example, you may have been afraid of heights when climbing a tree, or fear of spiders and snakes. In this case, you notice the symptoms of fear and react accordingly. Fear can be actually very helpful in these situations. It stimulates a stress response of your body to release the hormone adrenaline, and prepare your body to fight, freeze, or flight.
Typically, there are different types of threats that evoke fear.
For example the fear of getting hurt, financial or material loss, being afraid of not being accepted, or getting sick. Ultimately, if you reflect deeper, all forms of fear are rooted in the fear of death.
You can quickly do an experiment to validate it.
For this I encourage you to do the “worst case scenario” exercise:
Take a pen and paper. Then start writing down a scenario or situation that you are currently afraid of. Now consider that this actually happens. Contemplate what could happen next as a result of this (worst case scenario) Continue this sequence. What is the conclusion in your line of thought?
This can look like this:
“I have fear of making the wrong decision.”
“Since I made the wrong decision, my manager thinks I’m not capable enough.”
“They fired me. I lost my job”
“ I have not enough money to pay the rent”
“The landlord kicks me out of my apartment.”
Yes, ultimately (in the worst case scenario) you arrive at death!
This exercise is actually a helpful technique, as in many cases the actual danger looks less threatening when written on paper.
Although you will die eventually, you realize that being laid off or failing a project is not causing the world to come to an end.
Yes, this obviously represents a challenge or possibly even a hardship. You may have to look for another job or alternative source of income, and it might be uncertain in terms of the outcome. However, you are not being physically harmed or in danger. Compare this with our ancestors when they were encountering a saber tooth tiger. Now this was a “real” problem, a matter of life or death.
If you reflect further, this gives you a different perspective on your fears as well. That’s why this exercise is always helpful to achieve more clarity on some of your fears. The worst case may not be that bad after all, once you clearly think it through.
However, when your state of mind is dominated by your worries and fears, and these are so constant that they interfere with your ability to function and relax, you may have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). You may want to explore a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as this can lead to a serious health condition.
In my own journey I have encountered (and still encountering) fear on a daily basis. Particularly in 2015, where I faced a major disruption in my life. I realized that working 14-16 hours a day over a long period had begun to take a serious toll on my health and mental wellbeing. Prior to this, I did not know the meaning of an anxiety attack. Once you have your first one, you will look at anxiety quite differently, as the physical symptoms can be quite overwhelming.
Luckily, I noticed that I had to make substantial changes to my overall lifestyle before I was totally burned out and took action by enrolling in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) class. This was the first time I had been exposed to meditation and mindfulness.
However, I have learned through the application of mindfulness techniques to observe fear and accept it for what it really is - just a thought or emotion.
Once you start to accept fear, and it becomes your “friend”, you will no longer feel the urge to avoid it or push it away.
This sounds easy, but typically is a journey and process that requires systematic and regular training of your mind.
However, from my own experience, I can say that it is achievable through the application of mindfulness techniques and it is worth the effort. Once fear dissolves, it will have many positive outcomes for you personally and as a leader.
First, the quality of your decisions improve. A decision based on fear is rarely a good one.
Second, as fear is no longer dominating your thinking, it unleashes your creativity and resourcefulness.
Your health will quickly improve, as the constant fear is a major source of stress for your body.
Last but not least, your team(s) will notice and feel the positive impact quickly. If you have ever worked for a fear-based leader, you know what I mean.
From the list above of common fears of a leader, reflect and identity, which ones are currently resonating with you? Write them down.
Actually reflect on how often per day do you identify with worryful thoughts. Write it down.
Do the suggested exercise to write down (on paper or your smartphone) all your worryful (or negative) thoughts as they arise. Then reflect in the evening.
For some of your fears that you identified in the earlier exercise, try to write down the sequence of events (worse case scenario) to explore what could potentially happen.
I encourage you to explore mindfulness and start with a few mindfulness exercises (e.g., mindfully brushing your teeth, mindful eating, mindful showering, …) as these usually don’t require extra time (but extra effort).
Download a meditation app and start meditation for 5 minutes a day. Do this for at least 3 weeks. On my blog I provide more helpful resources on how you can establish a regular meditation practise.
If you are motivated enough and want to invest more of your time and resources I also offer an online course (currently in German) that is based on the proven framework of the “7 Pillars of Mindful Leadership.” In particular, the pillars 1-4 will help you overcome your fears as well. The course is designed to be taken once in a period of 3-4 months with a minimum of 10 minutes per day on training requirements.
If you are ready to “conquer” fear once and for all, and have a strong commitment to doing so, I offer also training and coaching options for leaders specializing in stress resilience and fear to help you achieve that.
What are you afraid of today?
(Don't be afraid) to share in the comments.