When it comes to leadership skills, fear management is an essential skill for success that nobody talks about, but every professional needs to master. To introduce the subject of fear management in a way that most of us can relate to, let me begin with a quote from a popular holiday movie, Home Alone. A movie in which the then child star Macaulay Culkin immortalized the character of Kevin McCallister, a child accidentally left behind at home by his parents during the holidays. Here’s a snippet of the conversation that changes the course of the movie:
Kevin McCallister:No offense, aren’t you too old to be afraid?
Marley (the elderly neighbor):You can be too old for a lot of things, but you’re never too old to be afraid!
Subsequent to this scene at a local church, Kevin decides to face his fear and chalks out a plan to nab the thieves who want to break into his home. What ensues are laugh out loud moments that make the movie a perpetual holiday favorite. Throughout the movie, Kevin by no means has conquered his fears, but he identifies his fears and uses them to his advantage. In short, he manages his fears to emerge victorious. And as Marley, the old man in the movie puts it, “you’re never too old to be afraid!” Even the most seemingly fearless professionals or leaders in the business world are nothing but master managers of fear. Observe the most successful people and you will realize that fear management is on their list of top leadership skills!
Disclaimer:Fear management is very different from management by fear. In the latter, you instill fear in your colleagues and subordinates in order to get work done. Fear management is something more internal and individual.
Fear as a moderator
People aren’t willing to talk about factors that have made them successful, especially if those very factors have negative connotations. Fear or paranoia in the workplace is a prime example of one such factor.
Consider contemporary entrepreneurs, who have been successful by disrupting the status quo and launching truly innovative products or services. Do you ever hear about these same leaders over-sharing their plans? Many disruptors often share their ideas and are not as cautious once they launch their companies. It’s primarily in the early stages when they are not sharing. Considering today’s speed of information, ideas or business plans that are shared can reach innovation hubs such as India, China, Japan, or Silicon Valley, where people could be working on the same idea as you. In such situations, fear acts as a moderator and lets you think twice before you share sensitive information.
Fear as a motivator
[Tweet “As a professional you need to be concerned and you need to manage fear every day.”] It keeps you motivated to stay sharp and focused. Fear lets you question yourself all the time; some may call this second-guessing, but from my perspective, it is about motivating myself every day. Ask yourself questions like “Am I on the right track?”, “Am I doing what is best for my team, company, and my customers?” Fear lets you question yourself and acts as an internal motivator to be the best you can be on a daily basis.
Fear as a survival tactic
As an entrepreneur or a professional in the corporate world, there are times when you tend to forge ahead at full speed. This speed sometimes can combine with overconfidence in our own skills and expertise – a heady mix that has led to the premature downfall of many rising professionals. You don’t need to be a CEO to experience this. Many times, mid-career professionals are so busy forging ahead and battling their day–to–day work that they lose sight of the real nuances of their roles.
No matter what rung of the career ladder you are in, you need to ask yourself some tough questions – questions that will automatically crop up when using fear to your advantage. Ask yourself these questions – “if a professional smarter than me comes along, what would he/she do differently?”, “what are the different skills this person would bring on board?”, “what can I do to stand out from the next expert entering the door?”
Many successful people I know also ask themselves this question before a major undertaking – “What is the worst that can happen?” Sometimes when this question is asked, you are criticized as being paranoid, but more often than not, you get confidence from knowing what the worst case scenario could be and preparing for it. When my company recently signed on a new client, I mentally prepared myself and the team to expect the product to break, because the client was likely to find a new way to use the product and/or not be able to use it. When this did happen, the team was mentally prepared to face the challenge. Fear helped us survive and get through what could have very easily escalated into a crisis.
Fear lets you set better expectations
I have said this before:“expectation is the human side of strategy.” Fear lets us set better expectations and more realistic ones. By fearing, we consider what could go wrong and calculate the likely outcome based on an appropriate range of upside and downside scenarios. Once a person who is motivated by fear sets these expectations, he or she tends to work hard towards making sure that a project is on track. If you notice, people who are paranoid tend to under-promise and often over-deliver! This creates win-win situations in a professional context.
Find a positive synonym
On a closing note, I do need to admit that sometimes experiencing fear or being paranoid at work can be exhausting. At times like these, find a positive synonym for fear. Try using words like conscientious, cautious, or even a term like “being prepared.” Trust me, this tactic works like a charm!
Edwin has authored 9Lenses Insight to Action:A Social Approach to Business Optimization and Snapshot9 What’s Your Picture?:Accelerate Your Business Performance. Click here to download the first chapter of 9Lenses Insight to Action for free!