Three steps to fear-free leadership

Alison Reid shares how to help leaders be more effective.

What if I were to tell you that there are leaders missing in your organisation? That there are voices, ideas, opinions that are unheard?

This isn’t a ‘performance’ issue. I am talking about talented senior managers or directors who may have recently taken on a new leadership challenge, whether a promotion or increased responsibility. Expectations are high given their potential.

Yet their line managers wish that they were leading more and managing less, executing change faster, and influencing senior stakeholders more effectively. Do you recognise this scenario in your business?

What I have found is that the increased level of challenge and exposure that comes with leadership amplifies underlying fears – fear of being found out, often known as Impostor Syndrome, fear of losing their reputation, and, ultimately, fear of failure.

These individuals are expected to balance delivery with strategic thinking and to have opinions outside their area of technical expertise and they feel that there is now further to fall if they get it ‘wrong’.

The increased level of challenge and exposure that comes with leadership amplifies underlying fears – fear of being found out, fear of losing their reputation, and, ultimately, fear of failure. 

When fear is at play, survival becomes paramount. Pleasing the boss becomes more important than pushing back, doing it right becomes more important than doing the right thing. Yet only a minority of leaders voice their concerns.

Our sense of fear developed to keep us alive. As Rick Hanson wrote, our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one and thinking there wasn’t a tiger when there was.

Unsurprisingly, we have evolved to make the first mistake over and over again to avoid making the second one! However, the ‘tiger’ has now become, for example, fear of provoking a volatile boss or fear of looking stupid – what Hanson calls ‘paper tiger’ paranoia.  

Contrary to cultural belief, we are not hardwired. We can change how we respond to perceived threats. However, given that 40 – 45% of our behaviour is unconscious, this isn’t a simple process. And when we are afraid, our instinctive physiological response can supersede so-called ‘rational’ behaviour.

After many years working with leaders cross-sector, I have found that there are essentially three steps to helping my clients change unproductive behaviours which have a basis in fear : Awareness, design and practice.

This approach is not just intellectual – when we’re anxious, our body reacts as if it us under threat and we need to be curious not only about the thoughts we hold in these situations but where and how we hold tension. We then have the option to break the pattern and practise new behavioural strategies.

1) Awareness

Firstly, we need to help the individual raise awareness of what situations trigger feelings of fear or anxiety and how they behave in those moments. Awareness alone can pave the way for behavioural change. One financial director I worked with realised that, when he was feeling overwhelmed, he hunched over with his head in his hands – he literally couldn’t ‘see’ the way forward.

2) Design

The next step, which often emerges naturally from the first, is for the individual to clarify the impact they want to make. How do they want to show up differently in situations that trigger their anxiety and what does that mean specifically in terms of how they hold their bodies and how they talk to themselves?

One director I worked with felt anxious speaking up in executive forums. She wanted to appear calm and confident. For her, this involved a shift in her posture, making eye contact, and holding the thought that she was entitled to have an opinion.

3) Practice

Habitual behavioural patterns are wired into us, and when we are gripped by fear, our body responds the same way it always has done. That means leaders need to practise interrupting these behaviours and replacing them with more helpful patterns of thinking and doing.

I have found that some individuals are able to overcome their fear response with time and conscious practice, whilst life events, such as parenthood, can help others gain perspective on their fears.

However, given that we have been practising our behaviours since childhood, identifying unhelpful strategies and embedding new ones may require additional support. A skilled coach will pick up on behavioural patterns which the individual concerned may be unaware of, crucial to surfacing insight which then paves the way for action.

For more information on how fear holds leaders back from realising their full potential and what you can do to help them, read Alison Reid’s white paper:


About the author

Alison Reid is a leadership expert and founder of Beyond Bounds.




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