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The Funny Side of Fear – 5 Ways to Turn Fears into Leadership Tools

I spend a great deal of space in the book Transfluence making a case that fear is one of the two biggest obstacles to a leader’s success. Fear and pride, I write, stunt the influence of leaders and limit their ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others. So if we want to lead effectively, we must subdue our pride and face and overcome our fears.

There’s another side of fear, however, that’s worth exploring in our pursuit of transformative influence. When we face our fear with the right perspective, we actually can turn it into a tool that helps us in our leadership. Consider these five ways we can use fear when we refuse to allow fear to abuse us:

Fear can push us to do something we should do but otherwise wouldn’t try.

Failure is one of the most common fears among executives, and it can paralyze us into inaction. But if we use this fear to spot a challenge worth embracing, it can strengthen our resolve to step into the unknown and take acceptable risks. Innovation and success often only come when something valuable is risked. We have to leave our comfort zone and embrace the challenge, even though there’s a possibility that we will lose money, time, energy, or whatever. Fear can be signal to us that something worthwhile awaits us on the other side. It’s that feeling in the gut that says, “This might not work, but it’s worth it to go for it.”

Fear can prevent us from doing something we shouldn’t.

On the other hand, fear also can act as a guide rail to keep us from doing something unreasonable. If we’re driving along the interstate and see a sign that tells us a bridge is out, a healthy fear of experiencing an untimely death causes us to stop our car or take a different route. The same is true in leadership. A legitimate fear often alerts us to an impending disaster in time for us to pivot.

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Fear can sharpen our focus when tackling a problem we can’t avoid.

There are some challenges we simply can’t elude. They might be of our making or they might arise from circumstances beyond our control, but we don’t really have the option of opting out. In those cases, our fear can heighten our sense of purpose. It alerts us to the stakes. If we don’t give into that fear (which can cause us to make poor decisions or not to act at all), we are often able to manage the details more wisely so that we can get through the trial. You see this often in great athletes. They are highly motivated by the idea that they don’t want to lose, so their intensity and focus increases during the tensest moments of a game.

Fear can help us rally the support of others to achieve our goals.

When we allow fear to turn into inaction or panic, we forfeit our role as leaders. No one will want to follow us, and very few will. If we remain calm and focused in the face of something fearful, however, the troops will rally around us and we will have strength in our numbers. The fear won’t go away, for us or our employees, but we can resolve to meet the fear together.

Fear can increase our humility.

Fear reminds us that we aren’t fully in control and that we don’t have all the answers. If our pride gets in the way, we won’t admit that the fear is real and we will pay a price. People will see through the façade. Trust will be weakened. And our decisions will suffer because fear will impact our motives and our understanding of the facts. Acknowledging life’s realities, however, humbles us in healthy ways, and it sets a foundation for building trust and seeking help from others.

Life is too complicated and unpredictable to happen without fear coming into play from time to time. The question leaders must ask is whether they will allow fear to rule their decisions or whether they will see fear for what it is and use it for their benefit. We can’t truly face something we won’t acknowledge, and we can’t conquer something we aren’t willing to face. So the sooner we acknowledge and face our fear, the sooner we can turn it into a tool that helps us make a positive difference in the lives of others.

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