By Robert Mulhall

Leading Beyond Fear


It’s no big revelation that being a leader can feel hard at times. Whether we are an individual at the top, a member of a leadership team, or a leader anywhere in an organization’s hierarchy, we all feel the pressure to succeed. As leaders, we often face limited resources; ambitious—and sometimes completely unrealistic—targets; and a rapidly changing external environment that often mirrors the never-ending change initiatives being rolled out in our organizations.

Does any of this sound familiar?

In this first article in our five-part series on inner leadership, we are talking about fear and the ways in which fear can hamper successful  leadership. In our work, we have witnessed the impact of fear on leaders at all levels, and have observed the damaging knock-on effects it can have within an organization. Ultimately, fear breeds fear, and the more it is allowed to proliferate, whether subtly or not-so-subtly, the more it will cripple an organization, leading to eventual decline and potential organizational failure.

All too often, we see leaders face hard times with a mindset of fear. Right now, as you’re reading this article, I ask you to stop for a moment and consider the question: do I feel fear during the day at work? Reflect on what comes up for you when you think about this question. Do you notice any of your colleagues acting out of fear? Remember that fears can show up with varying levels of intensity, and often bubble up as “micro-fears,” hiding behind phrases such as, “I can’t give the feedback now,” “We need more information before we move forward,” “This is how it has always been done,” or “I have never done this before, so I won’t take the risk.”

Fear can show up in many ways, from unhelpful leadership styles to toxic behavior. Fear shapes the culture of the organization and impacts morale. Fear can lead to confusion in decision making and often holds people and organizations back from realizing their full potential. While fear exists in every organization, we know there are ways to move beyond it.

In our experience, there are two ways for leaders to handle fear:

  • Fearlessness. Being fearless is about leading from a place of no fear—this is a rare state of being, and it is even rarer for a leader to experience this state all the time. However, it is sometimes possible to be in a place of flow (“in the zone”) where fear is not present, and a leader can engage, speak, and act from a place of full integrity and alignment.
  • Courage. Being courageous in the face of fear is the other option. Courage is not about having no fear; it is about having fear and finding the resilience to take action and move beyond the fear. Most leaders we work with find themselves facing this dynamic: an internal sense of fear is governing their leadership and they want to be able to move beyond that fear with the courage to take action.

Both options of moving beyond fear are possible, and both have the potential to create immense value for you and your organization. Some leaders will find it easier to be courageous, while others will find it easier to be fearless. It’s important not to get caught up on being one way or the other. The key is to play to your strengths and follow the five steps below to support you as you lead beyond fear.

#1 – Be radically self-aware. We know that when a leader is given the tools to become radically self-aware of how fear is impacting her ability to lead successfully, she has taken the first step to turning the ship. Self-awareness is the foundational tool of all great leaders—it is the ability to look inward and be honest with what we are feeling and what is driving our actions, decisions, and words. Bringing our fear-based mindset into our awareness is the first step in helping to reduce its impact—we first have to see it, name it, and then commit to moving beyond it.

#2 – Lead by example. If you don’t model leading beyond fear, it is highly unlikely that anyone else will. Your ability to see, name, and voice your own fears at the right time will give others the courage and permission to do the same. As we’ve said leading beyond fear is not necessarily about being fearless—although fearlessness is not impossible—it is about feeling fear, recognizing it, and taking action to move beyond it. Fear is often described as a one-sided wall: once you climb over it and look back, it is no longer there (or at least the wall seems much smaller). This is true courage, and that is exactly what your team and organization need from you.

#3 – Create the right environment. As leaders, we must make sure that when people are at work—whether physically present in an office or not—they are experiencing a culture that will allow them to safely see and name their fears, seek support from colleagues or leadership, and act from a more centered place. Moving beyond fear is aided by our ability to be centered, still, and open to change. Blaming and shaming—whether oneself or others—should have no place in your organizational culture.

#4 – Insist on courageous conversations. People are not being honest at work—we know because we see it all the time. People are locked in a fear-based mindset around having a conversation that may not be well received. As leaders, our job is to help facilitate these conversations so that we can collectively become aware of what is being experienced within our organization. Without these courageous conversations, your organization will always be guessing and making assumptions.

#5 – Reward courage. If people don’t feel like they will be rewarded for addressing their fears, they may not find the courage to make the first step. Reward people by publicly acknowledging their courage when you see it, so that others can witness it. This will breed more and more courage to face the fears that we all carry around with us.

Time and time again, our experience has shown us that when leaders undertake these five steps, they shift, they evolve as leaders, they start to build their own confidence, and they develop a higher degree of comfort with a range of leadership styles. Beyond the individual evolution, we see that an organization’s culture starts to allow for more honesty about its current reality, and from that place of honesty, an organization can make real plans for success. When leaders show up this way, it gives the whole organization permission to show up this way. We start to reduce the levels of fear in decision making, communication, and in how we treat our colleagues across the organization. This unlocks a wave of energy that feels grounded and real, allowing people to start feeling more at ease and more authentically themselves.

At the Crossland Group, we know that our fundamental purpose—why we exist—is at the very heart of this transformational change. We have been helping leaders at all levels more effectively lead beyond fear for the past twenty years—we know that, while challenging, this process is not only possible, but can also be life-changing and deeply rewarding.

Leading from fear is exhausting—why not step beyond that fear and unlock the true potential of you and your team?

About the author

Robert Mulhall works with clients as a strategic advisor to identify core business challenges and design transformative solutions by unlocking fears and unnecessary limitations at the individual and organizational levels.

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