Leadership and Emotions – Fear

by | May 13, 2022 | Personal Growth, Professional Growth

“The only way to ease our fear and be truly happy is to acknowledge our fear and look deeply at its source.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

The past two newsletters have examined the emotions of anger and trust, and their impact on our leadership style. Today we look at fear. Fear is a primal emotion that can protect us personally, and ruin us professionally.

Fear is present in all organizations, often existing just below the surface. Suppressed until a decisive moment occurs. A few examples of how fear is generated:

  • Tight deadlines
  • Massive workloads
  • Lack of open and transparent communication
  • Job-stealing automation

What does fear look like? Stress, burnout, and silence.

Fear in life can be a gift. We personally rely on fear to protect us, warning us to be careful and avoid unnecessary risks. However, research clearly tells us fear and intimidation are toxic to working environments. Fear may appear to be an antidote to correct complacency, but the impact is short term – and costly.

The workplace is a more emotional place today, as we live in an age of anxiety. Workers are recovering and readjusting from over two years of pandemic fatigue. We remember the past, worry about the present, and often nervous about the future. Fear is only natural.

Our focus should be managing this emotion, not eliminating it, which is often beyond our control.

At work, my primary fear is relevance. Are my abilities staying current with our dynamic workplace? My clients expect wisdom I have learned through my diverse experiences, credible understanding of current realities, and insights on the future. To remain relevant, I need to provide value – often with leaders significantly younger than I am.

I use my fear of relevance as fuel to up my game, to fully embrace lifelong learning.

What do you fear at work?

Three keys to managing fear in the workplace:

Fear of the Worst-Case Scenario:

As we evaluate decisions, sometimes we get caught up in extremes. Either we are overly optimistic, neglecting reality, or pessimistic as we are consumed by the worst thing that could happen. There are no guarantees, yet one thing we know is the worst thing that could happen is not the last thing to happen. We need to maintain perspective by assessing all options. Expect the best while not disregarding the worst.

Fear of Failure:

What do all leaders have in common – a fear of failure. In their book The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price authors Laurence G. Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey assessed the impact of failure on leaders and organizations. Their assessment was “real failure doesn’t come from making mistakes; it comes from avoiding errors at all costs, from fear to take risks, and from the inability to grow. Being mistake free does not lead to success.” Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes in any sport, was riddled with failure in his professional career:

  • Missed nine thousand shots
  • Lost almost three hundred games
  • Twenty-six times he had the ball for the last second, game-winning shot – and he missed

Failure motivated him to push harder and succeed.

Fear of Speaking Up:

Withholding bad news – a toxic challenge in workplaces. Fear of being shot down as the messenger or committing a career-limiting move. To push back we need psychological safety in the workplace – an expectation our candor will be rewarded not punished. A leader can take years to build this expectation, and only one incident can destroy it. Soon the workplace becomes silent, and the prudent option is to shut up.

The image of leaders as fearless needs to be reconsidered. We have fears and certainly those who rely on us do as well. We will convince ourselves the worst outcome will happen. Fear of failure will erase our resolve to act. We will be silent when we should speak. When we understand the source of our fear, we build the confidence to move forward. To own our fears, rather than be defined by them.

Leading Your Team

An excellent article on managing virtual team fatigue by one of my colleagues Steve Dion at Dion Leadership:

Virtual Team Fatigue

Read to Lead

Leaders benefit from being active readers, long reads not just social media posts and news feeds. A deep read builds concentration, strengthens your intellectual capacity, and offers wisdom you can share. As you refresh or build your reading habit, diversify your experience – old, new, fiction, non-fiction, audio, hard cover, and e readers.


My April reading list:

The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

In 2015 Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India to discuss the importance of happiness and joy. They agreed a life well spent is full of joy and purpose. We achieve this through other people. We are born and die dependent on others. We do not control all aspects of any situation. The lesson for leaders is we excel when we have a sense of humility, humor, and acceptance.


Fear – Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master, poet, scholar, and peace activist. His message is we manage fear when we are mindful of our place, that we are a continuation of our parents, ancestors, as well as the descendants who follow us. The same principles apply to leaders in the workplace. Great leaders are grounded in the present and not defined by fear.


Have a great week!