Can You Be Fearless?
I recently had lunch with Jake, a young entrepreneur and leader who described himself as being stuck. Jake is a successful leader, with a 10-year record of success by all accounts. He runs his own company, which has grown under his careful and inspirational leadership.
But lately, his management team was stagnant. Jake felt a need to start engaging them at a higher intensity and raise the bar of performance. But he couldn’t figure out how to do that. Jake asked me what he should do to get unstuck.
Over the past few years, I have found myself wondering what someone is really asking me. I have realized that often the real question is hiding behind a spoken question.
While Jake was saying to me, “Here are my options. What should I do?” – he was really asking something else.
Instead of giving Jake a simple answer, I answered his question with a question.
“Jake, what’s keeping you from making a decision?” I asked. “All of your options here are good options, so why can’t you choose one?”
It’s All About Fear
I suspected Jake’s answer to my question would lead to a discussion about his fear(s) keeping him stuck. Jake could be feeling anxious that, if he were to make changes, he would become unpopular, somebody would quit or he would fail. So, he chose not to do anything.
Fear is somewhat wired in our genetic makeup, helping us intuitively make survival choices. Today, however, much of our fears are centered around emotions that, over time, create intuitive responses to people and conditions around us. Often the situation is not critical, but our fears, which inform our choices, cause us to fight or flight, over engage or pull back.
It also turns out that to get to a place of engaging our fears, we first have to overcome our initial reaction to the fear of being afraid. What does that mean? It would be like when you know you have to start exercising again after a few months of inactivity. But you also know you’re going to be really sore and imagine your pain will be so bad that you don’t go to the gym at all.
Fear of being afraid keeps you in a place of denial. You say things like: “If I overlook this, things will get back to normal,” “Maybe this is a phase,” “Our business will rebound on its own in time,” or “Maybe someone else will notice.” Sound familiar?
If Jake can be okay with realizing that maybe he is afraid of possible outcomes, he can begin to identify the specific area of fear that has kept him stuck.
Fear of Failure
Today, we often experience unhealthy doses of fear of failure. Over the years, and ever since we were in first grade, we have been celebrated for getting the right answer, often on the first try. What about when we get the wrong answer, but try again? No one celebrates that. Intuitively we start to think, “If I can’t get it right the first time, then I don’t want to try.” Over the years, this idea gets validated, and at some point the need to make decisions, large or small, triggers a deep fear of failure.
So, back to Jake. At our lunch meeting, I prodded him, “Tell me about what has kept you from making a decision.”
“Well, I was afraid of rocking the boat,” he answered.
“What do you mean by ‘rocking the boat?’”
“If I raised the bar I could really turn off some of my key employees,” said Jake. “What if their performance suffered and they left? Maybe they lose faith in me. And then what if our numbers suffer, then they plummet? And this could affect this year and next year, and we just couldn’t ever recover...
… And I don’t want to fail.”
“Woah,” I responded. “You’re really jumping ahead.”
Asking the Right Questions
Once Jake realized what was happening, together we focused on a few things to help him get unstuck:
- Stay with the here and now and be intentional to not extrapolate a big story from a simple conversation or decision.
- Focus on the things you can impact and influence. Then pause. Evaluate, take the next step, one step at a time.
- What do you have to do right away or next?
Jake realized his next step was a staff meeting where he and his team evaluated their outcomes as a group.
“Why don’t you schedule that meeting and then let’s plan for it together?” I asked him.
In my coaching plan for Jake, here are the two main things we worked through:
- What kind of outcomes do you want from your meeting?
- What are the best case scenarios (be positive) and worst-case scenarios (be prepared)?
We developed a contingency plan so Jake could be prepared, keeping his fears at bay. Some of Jake’s fears were well grounded and needed to be evaluated, such as how to anticipate upset employees when you introduce higher standards. We talked about how to anticipate and manage if and when that happens. As for imagining two or three years down the line of worst-case scenarios, we had to end that type of thinking, otherwise Jake would never make any changes.
Are you having difficulty identifying why you are indecisive? Check out your fear meter, and consider the following questions to get started:
- What am I afraid of, really?
- What are you afraid of that’s real, and what are you afraid of that you are imagining?
Taking a deeper look and asking the hard questions can push us past these obstacles and bring us closer to the profound changes that create fresh and lasting value in our lives, our work and for our teams.
The good news is you can overcome this and continue on the journey of leading fearlessly.
To share your thoughts with us, please feel free to comment on my Facebook page or Twitter.
Yasser Youssef is the president of The Budd Group, one of the leading facility service companies in the country a North Carolina-based company that provides facility support services in the Southeast. Throughout his career, Youssef has met leaders from all backgrounds, and believes leadership is for everyone. Over the past few years, he has developed an affinity for writing and contributing thought leadership and is often asked to speak to businesses throughout the country about authentic leadership.
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