Fear is a word seldom used in the same breath with leadership. They don’t seem to fit together. Leaders do not admit to fear: that sinking, fluttering feeling when confidence quakes, raising hidden, quiet anxiety and its paralyzing cousin doubt. In reality, however, fear is their silent companion. Few express their fears. The cliché “fearless leader” is best saved for humor.
Why is fear an anathema to leaders? Do we expect them to be without emotions and frailties? Does it diminish their performance? Does the self-image of leaders cause them to build a facade of coolness under pressure?
Fear is a natural outcome of the pressure of high stakes circumstances. To some it smacks of weakness, and conjures up images of cowardly behavior. In popular mythology leaders do not succumb to emotional foibles of mere mortals; they are cool and steely under fire and do not betray weakness, expose vulnerabilities, or express their doubts.
Having fears is not the problem. Facing them head-on can be. Recognizing fear, embracing it and working through it is risky and an act of courage. It requires the ability to be introspective and understand and feel safe in our own vulnerability. To do so, we need to understand ourselves, confront our emotions squarely, and admit our insecurities and the root of them.
Fears fall into two domains — personal and professional. Personal concerns the fear of failure and not meeting our aspirations. The professional side of the ledger includes fear of incompetence, not making a difference, and failure in the face of conflict. These two areas overlap and are interrelated, and separating them is not always possible.
Personal Fears: Leaders are no different from the rest of us. Despite confident exteriors, they fear some very fundamental things.
One source of anxiety is fear of living in a box of other people’s aspirations: the freedom to be oneself. Some of us “play a role”; we do not expose our true selves for fear of being vulnerable to criticism or uncertainty. We fear what others may think of us. What if we are ourselves and express our ideas and people reject us? Stepping out and leading creates discomfort: however, hubris is more damaging and a transparent facade for insecurity.
Accepting criticism without being personally defensive is not easy. Facades are built, porcelain masks are adorned, or invisible walls go up between us and the people with whom we work – creating distance and separation.
Moving out of the comfort zone that challenges convention is difficult. Staying in the cocoon of the known and familiar is easier than pursuing the uncertain road of change and growth. In quiet moments we ask ourselves, “Who do you think you are to assume leadership, to question, to challenge, to change”?
The fear of our own potential, our own goodness, seems paradoxical. We fear our own ability and personal power, and presume it is beyond our realm to have a significant role in people’s lives. This fear can produce self-doubt.
The fear of failure and creeping self doubt about measuring up is extremely potent. No one takes a role to fail. Failure to “reach goals”, not pulling things together, or “getting it wrong” are disconcerting. Having these personal doubts is not unusual when faced with the chaos of organizational life or the uncontrollable context superintendents confront.
The fear of failure, paradoxically, is rooted in the desire to do well and to make a difference. The gap between what we expect of ourselves smacks against the reality of a chaotic and unpredictable world, which can create discomfort and pain.
Next: Leadership and Fear – Part 2 Professional Fears