Overcome Fear, Don’t Avoid It


In my last issue of “Lead in the Moment,” I showed how managing for agility necessitates steering clear of nurturing fragility.A striking example of the counterproductive approach of fostering fragility is the prevailing emphasis on the manager’s role in “eliminating fear from the workplace,” as outlined by Marcel Schwantes in this month’s Inc. Magazine. Schwantes draws from the research on psychological safety conducted by Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School, which demonstrates that leaders who cultivate a culture of safety tend to yield superior performance outcomes. However, the reference isn’t entirely accurate, as Edmondson’s research focuses specifically on addressing the fear of failure, which she and her colleagues rightly see as a hindrance to experimentation and innovation. Eliminating all fear from the work environment is a different matter.

Certainly, leaders should aim to create an environment in which employees feel empowered to experiment and are free from abuse and exploitation. Nevertheless, it’s imperative to recognize that the responsibility of dealing with fear isn’t solely shouldered by the leader. Quite the opposite, from a leadership perspective, our role is much more significant than protecting the fragility of employees by insulating them from fear. The truth is, if towering figures like Ernest Shackleton, Edmund Hillary, Geraldine Mock, Neil Armstrong, and countless others had been raised with the expectation of fearlessness in their work environments, their heroic feats might never have materialized. Bill Gates wouldn’t have built Microsoft, Steve Jobs wouldn’t have founded Apple, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin wouldn’t have brought Google to life if they had awaited fear-free opportunities. Our role as leaders lies in teaching our team members how to confront and navigate their fears, not in advocating emotional safety over the pursuit of greatness.

Our role is to teach our teams how to confront and navigate their fears, not to advocate emotional safety over the pursuit of greatness.

Life’s journey inherently involves risk, and the pursuit of greatness in any field only intensifies that risk. With risk comes fear. Those who claim to be entirely fearless are either unrealistic or haven’t fully stretched their capabilities. Fearlessness is not about how we should feel; it is about how we should act. The ability to feel fear and at the same time act fearlessly is the hallmark of the path to greatness. Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of the renowned explorer, describes her grandfather as an optimist and an idealist regarding outcomes but a realist about circumstances. Shackleton’s unwavering optimism about outcomes enabled him to act fearlessly, even when the harsh reality of circumstances infused him with feelings of fear, as evident in his journals.

Fearlessness is not about how we should feel, it is about how we should act.

So, what are the essential qualities we should be instilling in those we lead to help them conquer fear and display courage, rather than relying on managers to eliminate fear entirely from the workplace? I like to frame it as follows:

Focus + Faith  >>  Fortitude + Fearlessness

Focus: Much like tightrope walkers who keep their gaze firmly fixed on their destination rather than being distracted by the surrounding scenery, focusing on the ultimate goal minimizes distractions and helps maintain equilibrium. This principle applies to any endeavor involving risk and fear. Concentrating on the vision of success helps avoid getting sidetracked by the myriad possibilities of failure. While focus can’t remove the potential pitfalls, it can mitigate the fear. In most cases, it’s not the things we fear that lead to our downfall, but rather our fear itself. Focus has the power to diminish that fear.

Faith: It’s important to differentiate faith from institutionalized religion. While many members of religious institutions possess faith, faith extends beyond the confines of organized religion. Most individuals harbor faith in a higher force, some form of spiritual energy, or a sense of destiny. Returning to Shackleton’s example, he wasn’t conventionally religious in any way, yet he wrote, “When I look back at those days, I have no doubt that Providence guided us.” Even without subscribing to religious doctrines, Shackleton experienced a profound connection to a greater protecting force during his perilous journey. This sense of presence, or faith, reinforces our fortitude.

Fortitude: Once we’re resolutely focused on the outcome and maintain faith in the possibility of success, we can summon fortitude. Fortitude is the mental strength that enables one to endure pain or adversity with courage. The ability to endure becomes more manageable when we can envision the endpoint and believe in the value of our mission. Without a clear focus on a valued outcome, mental strength remains elusive. Belief in the worthiness of our pursuit and clear sight of our destination grant us the strength and fortitude to endure adversity.

Even on days when he expressed inner fears and frustrations in his diary, he displayed outer determination, strength, and care for his team.

Even with focus, faith, and fortitude, it’s improbable that fear will vanish entirely. Nor should we wish for its complete eradication because fear propels us to perform at our best. However, these qualities—focus, faith, and fortitude—empower us to act fearlessly. As Professor Nancy Kuhn of Harvard Business School remarked regarding Shackleton, “Even on days when he expressed inner fears and frustrations in his diary, he displayed outer determination, strength, and care for his team.” Fearlessness isn’t something you should expect to feel when pursuing challenging opportunities, fearlessness is about how you should show up, about the way you act and the way you lead.