Fear stalks leaders. For many of us, our self-concept is directly tied to our professional performance — our work and meeting our responsibilities and obligations.

We perceive a fearsome, dog-eat-dog world in which we need to protect ourselves from errors and failure. Some mutter “it’s lonely at the top” perpetuating the idea that leaders are isolated and not supposed to be too close to people in order to maintain objectivity and rationality. We build a facade around ourselves because of concern for losing our authority or damaging our image. So we put emotional space and structural distance between ourselves and everyone else.

Competence is embedded in our internal need to make a difference. Issues do not come packaged in familiar and soft wrappings. The fear of not being up to the challenge is a haunting one because tackling tough problems successfully is what leadership is about.

As the sands shift and change accelerates, we also the fear maintaining our competence over time. Handling today’s concerns is one thing, doing it over the long term is another. In essence, the real fear is of the unknown — what is down the road or around the corner. This is not new.

All leaders have to contend with the unknown, unexpected, and unimaginable. Actually, that’s why leaders are necessary and essential in the first place. But how does one prove competence in the face of confounding dilemmas? 

The fear of competence runs silent and deep. We feel the need to prove our ability. Concerns about having the skills or knowledge to cope with the challenges are intense. The competence fear is rooted in expectations: our own and those of others. Being perceived as competent in the eyes of “followers” is critical. 

But decision-making is a slippery slope because we face multiple expectations with few win-win propositions. Expectations are gargantuan. The problem is that many expectations are contradictory, incongruent, or diametrically opposed.

People lean on leaders in tough times, yet they desire autonomy and independence. They want decisiveness, yet they want participation. They want to be treated individually, yet desire consistency and uniformity. Leaders cannot possibly deliver on all of these conflicting expectations because they raise unreasonable or unreachable standards.

Consequently, when leaders make so-called “tough” calls, they cannot possibly measure up to the desires of all groups or interests. Some groups will acclaim great leadership and others will be angry and disenchanted.

Conflict, however, does not mean that leaders will be judged incompetent. Quite the contrary. Credibility, making difficult decisions with integrity to principle and values, may not gain universal acclaim, but they do garner respect. Integrity and being ethical are two sides of the same coin. While leaders cannot please all people, they can get their grudging respect for the principles on which they stand.

In difficult decisions, leaders may confront hard personal choices. If they make principle-based decisions, they must be willing to give up their attachments like financial security, position, or social status. For example, being attached to popularity can subtlely erode principled decisions.

Finally, turmoil and conflict are a leader’s companions. Leaders who are uncomfortable with conflict are like astronauts hating weightlessness. Conflict is unavoidable and inevitable, springing from a nonrational and dynamic environment. In fact, leaders must confront it and, at times, even create it.