The idea of the “fearless leader” owes more to myth than it does to leadership reality. The goal is not to be fearless, the goal is to be courageous.
There’s a world of difference.
A fascinating conversation I had with a professional athlete painted a vivid picture of this. During my college days, I supported myself by working as a sports writer. Once, while covering a pro boxing match, I asked the younger challenger how he managed to conquer his fears as he entered the ring against his older, more experienced opponent.
“I don’t think you ever fully conquer your fear,” he responded. “But I think you can learn to control your fear. Then you just need to be brave and move forward. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”
That was an important leadership learning; leadership is about being courageous. Effective leaders accomplish this by remembering these three leadership truths:
1. Every leader faces fear.
Fear is normal. Approaching a challenge, obstacle or major decision with no sense of fear is at best naïve, and at worst it shows that a person is out of touch with reality.
2. Fear can be a leader’s friend.
Fear points out risk. Fear sizes up a situation and helps to determine if there really is enough upside to warrant betting the farm.
3. Fear can be tamed.
Every time you face a decision, fear is sitting at the table with you. Fear is joined by Facts, Resources, History, Talent, and other factors that go into the making of a final call.
Fear belongs at the table. Its voice matters. But it must not be allowed to dominate the conversation. It must not be allowed to drown out the other voices vying for attention.
Facts must be heard; you must pay close attention to the hard data.
Resources must be heard; you must account for the finances and personnel available to you.
History must be heard; you must consider established trends and patterns.
Talent must be heard; you must weigh your own gifts and abilities.
Don’t let fear drown out these voices. Allow fear’s voice to be heard; allow it to point out risks, but then balance it off with facts, resources, and so on.
Then tell Fear to take a seat, be quiet, and make your decision.
Because it’s not about being fearless. Leadership is about being courageous.