The Folly of Fearlessness
What a terrible mistake it is to aspire to be fearless. Adam Bryant in his book – The Corner Office – shares five habits of highly effective CEOs. There is great material in the book, insights which align with my observations in coaching CEOs and facilitating executive development programs. However, I strongly disagree with the title of his last habit, not with the content. He claims that great leaders are fearless. This is simply not accurate.
Striving to be fearless is fruitless, misguided, and unsustainable. Fear is a biological reaction to potential harm. Fear is a the elemental pattern from which our ego identity is woven. Fear stops us from harming ourselves. While fear can be a very limiting state, it is NOT inherently bad.
I recommend that if you have a goal of fearlessness, you should drop it. We cannot achieve a state of fearlessness. Having no fear, no perception of danger or harm, is displayed in people with head injuries, under the influence of drugs or, disease induced mental impairment. Don’t aspire to be fearless; its a silly and wasteful goal. Moreover, it’s fear’s little brother – anxiety – that parades through our mind and body in the course of our days.
The meaningful aspiration is to cultivate courage. Taking risk is critical not only in business, but in every aspect of being alive. It was scary and risky for me to ask a woman for a date (when I was single, of course). It was risky asking her to marry me. It was risky to start a consulting firm, it’s risky to grow the team, and it’s risky to embark on new projects and markets. Risk and danger are the steps that lead from the comfort zone. And leadership, in it’s many forms, always involves departing the comfort zone.
So forget fearlessness, cultivate your courage. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Focus on what you want: courage is easier in context. When you possess clarity of direction, risk can be gauged by whether the actions will take you closer to or further away from your goal. Rather than than focusing on what to avoid, focus on your vision for what you desire.
- Get support: There is real power in reaching out for collaboration and support. In my role as executive coach, I help articulate what you are struggling to think about. Free yourself from the childish notion that you can figure out what’s frightening you all by yourself. Skillful dialogue will quickly reveal where you are stuck and how to move forward.
- Work in teams: engage your people in the vision and collectively create a plan. Plans represent our best thoughts for accomplishing our goals. When your team is on board and committed, the anxiety is reduced.
- Feel your body: fear and anxiety are not merely mental, they are physical – fluttering in the belly, tightness in the chest, tension in the head, grinding teeth. Experience your physical sensations for three or four breaths; allow the body to spell out what you’re anxious about.
Above all, be prepared to take action even when you’re anxious or frightened. Courage is the willingness to walk toward what you’d rather walk away from. If you wait till you are fearless to exercise good leadership, you are not likely to achieve it in your lifetime. Be prepared to have fear and anxiety, AND the courage necessary to take risk and bear responsibility.