This is what we're afraid of as leaders

Once we dispense with the notion of the fearless leader, an urban myth to lead them all, we can make our way to a list of things that go bump in the day and night. I find it helpful to name the fears, much like repeatedly saying the name Voldemort out loud, as it gives them less power over my thoughts and actions.

Here’s my top 11 list of leadership fears:

  1. Failure. Fear: Loss of respect, esteem, or job. Reality: If we are doing anything worthwhile, we will fail along the way. Cure: Accept failure as the tuition payment required to become a better leader. Own your mistakes, learn from them, get back up, and continue leading.
  2. Imposter. Fear: This is the voice that tells us we aren’t capable enough to be in our role. We don’t deserve the job, and everybody in the room knows it when we speak. Reality: Everyone experiences this fear. Cure: If we’ve prepared ourselves, have the team’s best interests at heart, and are helping drive for business results, we’re not imposters, we’re leaders.
  3. Criticism. Fear: A hit to our ego and disappointing our bosses, peers, and team. Reality: We aren’t always the best judges of how we’re doing, and we need others to provide constructive criticism to help us get better. It’s also true that we receive destructive criticism at times. While difficult, if not impossible, at the time it happens, nobody has permission to abuse you and make you feel bad about yourself. Cure: Create situations where you frequently ask, How am I doing? The more you engage in a 360-degree feedback loop with others, the more usual and comfortable it becomes.
  4. Expert. Fear: Not mastering everything everybody else on the team knows. Reality: It’s difficult to envision a small enough company scenario where one person knows everything and still adds significant value in all areas. Even if you’re able to do all of the jobs in a small company, doing them all is a poor use of your time and is not scalable. Cure: Embracing diverse skills and thinking expands capabilities and contributions. Most importantly, diverse talent forms the foundation and superstructure of a high-performing business.
  5. Technical. Fear: Data scientists who speak a strange and different language surround us. They think I am an idiot. Reality: They are equally baffled by our technical expertise, whether that is finance, accounting, operations, or HR. Cure: Stay curious and find ways to make your knowledge accessible to others and ask the same of them. Over time, the company gets smarter as its people learn. (And to the data scientists I’ve worked with over the years—stop laughing.)
  6. Words used. Fear: Using the wrong words or saying the wrong thing in a meeting. Reality: Sometimes we step in it despite our best intentions. Cure: Apologize. Learn. Laugh. Move on.
  7. Indecisive. Fear: We aren’t making decisions fast enough. Reality: We may not be making decisions rapidly enough. Cure: Observe the best decision maker in your company as a benchmark. Ask her what she does to be as decisive as she is. Practice her approach, refine it, and check in with your team along the way to gauge your progress. Deliberately practicing decision making strengthens that muscle.
  8. Wrong. Fear: We look bad to our boss, peers, and team. Reality: Our reaction to being wrong is a more significant factor in other peoples’ perception of us than the fact we got it wrong. Cure: You’re human. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Learn from the situation and move on.
  9. Respect. Fear: People don’t respect you or your point of view. Reality: You may be right. Organizations convey authority from above, and we earn respect through words and deeds. Cure: Surround yourself with truth-tellers more concerned about helping you improve than helping you look good. Allow them to speak freely. Swallow hard as you receive their feedback and use that knowledge to get better.
  10. Vulnerability. Fear: Displaying vulnerability is a sign of weakness to our people. Reality: Vulnerability is a sign that we are imperfect and accessible. This is a sign of strength and self-confidence, not weakness. Cure: Share some of your fears with your team and ask for their help to move through them. Taking action moves us from doubt to possibility.
  11. Confrontation. Fear: Providing constructive criticism is painful and unkind. Reality: Positively confronting reality with a motive to help the person and team improve forms the essence of an influential and capable leader. Cure: Constructive confrontations create a healthy, high-performance culture and respectful relationships. An excellent resource is Crucial Confrontations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler.

Takeaway: The practice of naming our fears eliminates much of their power to negatively influence our behavior. Whether a fear is imagined or real, the resources are always available to help overcome them. Use fear as a signal for movement, not a reason to stay stuck.