Managing Fear: Yours and Others

Leigh BaileyBy Leigh BaileyLeigh Bailey, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Managing fear. Our own and others. This is a topic that is showing up a lot in my coaching these days.

Leaders are taught that they are supposed to be strong, confident and resilient. An article in the November 30, 2008 New York Times about Barack Obama highlighted this expectation with its title: “Don’t Let Them See You Sweat”.

But fear is a natural reaction to perceived threat. And if your business is forecasting a double digit revenue decline in 2009 and your expenses are growing by 5% a year and your banker is hesitant to lend you money, you would have to be superhuman (or completely cut off from your feelings) not to feel at least a little uncomfortable.

One of my favorite authors and teachers taught me that “true fearlessness is not the reduction of fear, but going beyond fear”. In other words, being courageous is not the same as denying that we feel fear. Instead, we need to acknowledge our fear, reconcile ourselves with it, and then act along side it.

So how does a leader go beyond fear? At The Bailey Group, we  have found that maturity and versatility are two key competencies that effective leaders cultivate. And the skills embedded in these two competencies are the ones that help leaders manage their fear and to lead others during difficult times.

At its core, maturity is about knowing and managing yourself. A key aspect of maturity is awareness of what you are feeling at any given moment and the ability to choose your response to your feelings. Because fear is uncomfortable, leaders learn ways to hide their fears from others (and themselves), often without knowing that their behavior is driven by fear. Some get angry and start yelling. Others withdraw and become paralyzed with self doubt.

Maturity requires courage. In particular, the courage to feel your fear and to be “present” with it. “Being present” is not a mystical concept. It simply means not denying the fear or reacting to it out of habit, but instead choosing how you want to respond to get the results you want.

This is where versatility becomes important. Sometimes, what is needed from a leader is forcefulness and urgency. Other times what is required is calm and the ability to listen, support, and encourage others. Mature leaders take the time to diagnose what is needed in a given situation. Versatile leaders have the skills to be either forceful or encouraging, depending upon what is required. Less versatile leaders act the same way in all situations, because it feels comfortable and familiar.

Franklin Roosevelt, in his first Inaugural, said…”all we have to fear is fear itself”. Perhaps part of what he meant is that fear, without maturity and versatility, can cause us to act in ways that make situations worse, not better. So, when you feel fear, practice acknowledging and not running from it (without judging yourself for feeling it).  Then decide how you want to respond. And then act, on purpose.

So how are you managing your fears about the future and the economy these days? What works for you?