Your Fears Can Either Hold You Back or Propel You Forward

No one is immune from fear. Fear makes you hesitate. It can get in the way of your success as a leader, especially when it goes unexamined and is allowed to drive your behavior. 

Fear is an expression of your survival instinct. It is a natural response to physical and emotional danger and a form of self-preservation that stops you from stepping out of your comfort zone into what your brain perceives as a potentially hazardous situation. 

Fear can be triggered without warning and either stops you in your tracks and forces you to deal with it or causes you to hesitate like a flashing yellow warning light. Personal insecurities, past experiences, or previous trauma precipitate many fears. When you try to ignore fears you should be facing, you either avoid dealing with those difficult but crucial situations or are more reactive and come across as irrational, frustrated, or angry. 

To be a better leader, you must learn to work with your fears instead of ignoring or minimizing them. The best approach is to assess the situation, understand your fears, and then decide how to proceed.  

Assess the situation

The purpose of this assessment is to help you gain some perspective, so you see the situation more clearly. Start by making a list of the facts about your situation. Next, list your emotions.

In the early years of my business, the Relationship Protocol, I wrote a book so I could share my work with a larger audience. When I realized that I needed to have my photograph on the book cover, I considered canceling the release of my book. I wanted my work to have a larger audience; that didn't mean I wanted a larger audience! 

But the fact is that the credibility of the message depends on the credibility of the messenger. So, I conducted an assessment of the situation and listed the facts. I knew my photograph had to be on my book cover. But it would be a relatively small picture, approximately two inches tall, probably in black and white on the back cover. I also knew that I could choose the photograph I liked best from a professional photo shoot. Next, I identified my emotions: I was feeling vulnerable, uncomfortable, scared, and out of control.

Making these lists without judgment will give you some perspective about the situation and how you feel about it -- it will give you some distance so you can choose how to proceed.

Understand your fear

Now that you have a realistic assessment of the situation, take some time to understand your reaction. It's OK if you're initially unsure of the reason or logic behind your fear. By asking yourself these questions, you'll understand your fears much better.

  • What are you afraid of? What outcome do you dread? You can't face your fears if you can't name them. Before starting my business, my life was quite private. I didn't want to be more visible. To my mind, visibility makes you a target for people to be critical and anonymously nasty. I wanted no part of it.
  • Have you experienced something similar that is guiding your hesitation? You may have been through a comparable situation before, and your brain's memory network is getting pinged in response. If so, remember that your history does not dictate your future. Look at the facts to see what, if anything, differentiates the current situation from the past. What could you do differently to ensure a different outcome? How have you evolved from who you were in the past?
  • Does your fear stem from a lack of confidence? If yes, can you identify one small action you could take to build your confidence? How can you encourage yourself? What words or behaviors can you embrace so you can be your own coach? 
  • Are you focused on the worst-case scenario? Understandably, our mind creates more resistance and fear when we focus on the things that can go wrong. A racing mind creates stories based on distortions, not facts. If you're stuck in a loop of worst-case scenarios, label your thinking unhelpful and look at the facts. Try to think of one or more possible positive outcomes. Change the story. 

Once you understand what you are afraid of and where that fear came from, you can use that information to help you decide what to do next.

Decide how to proceed

No formula will tell you which fears you should heed and which you should try to overcome. If a situation triggers you, deciding how to proceed may be especially hard. But if you can recognize it, you can limit its effects. Take a deep breath and give yourself time to calm down before deciding how to proceed, and then follow these guidelines: 

  • Remember that some fears are valid. Your fears may be justified, so the right action maybe not to take any action (at least for the time being). Honor your feelings and respect your decision without judgment. If something changes, you can reassess in the future. 

  • Talk it through. If you aren't sure how to proceed, try speaking with someone whose opinion you value. Present the facts, state your concerns, and then ask them to give you a reality check. Let them help you come to a final decision.
  • Push through the fear. If you are ready to face your fears, think about how you can comfortably begin the process. Small successes matter. Start with the least distressing factor to create some movement.
  • Find your bigger picture. Identify the things that matter more to you than your fear and use that to push through. Perhaps it's the people you work with every day or your pride in being a good manager. Use that as your motivation. When I decided to overcome my fears and publish my book, I thought about how important it is to me to serve and reach more people. That vision is my bigger picture, and it gives me the strength and courage I needed then and continue to use today to overcome my fears.

We have all been held back by our fears -- and our fears may hold us back in the future. But we don't have to be immobilized by them. If we assess the situation, take time to understand our fears, and connect with our bigger picture, we can decide how to proceed and grow into the leaders we want to be. 

Most important, your fears don't have to dictate your behavior. If you follow the process outlined above, you will understand which fears you can overcome, and which serve as flashing yellow warnings you should heed. The better you are at managing your fears, the better able you will be to support your team as they navigate fears of their own.


©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.

 A version of this article was initially published on as: 3 Steps to Turn Your Fears Into a Powerful Leadership Tool