The first time I heard that I had fears was during an intensive leadership program (now part of the BB&T Leadership Institute). This was 10 years ago, and I can remember thinking, “that’s interesting” followed by “other people have fears, but not me.” Then I slammed on the gas and spun tires out of the parking lot.
At the time, it wasn’t okay to talk about your weaknesses as a leader, much less what you are afraid of. But times change. As authenticity becomes more and more crucial to our effectiveness as leaders, so does our ability to own up to our flaws and transparently share what scares the bejeezus out of us.
The tough part is, we may not know what scares us. Sure it’s easy to say “a bad economy” scares us, or “not making payroll” scares us, or “the Redskins never winning another game” scares us, but what I mean by fears are those deep seated, psychologically driven fears that have been a part of who we are since childhood.
Examples of Deep-Rooted Fears (Not my fears of course, but you know, general fears):
- I’m afraid of looking stupid.
- I’m afraid of not being liked.
- I’m afraid of hurting feelings.
- I’m afraid of losing respect.
- I’m afraid of failure.
- I’m afraid of making a mistake.
- I’m afraid of losing control.
- I’m afraid of not being pretty enough.
These fears are tied to what we value as well as the key drivers in our lives, such as “Be Strong!” “Be Perfect!” “Be Liked!”
We don’t always know what we are afraid of because we don’t recognize the connection between our response and the fears triggered. Yes, we might recognize anxiety or worry, but our fears can show up in crazier ways. For example, if we make a mistake, we might experience a millisecond of fear, which turns into anger, and then we go yell at the dog, convinced he deserved it. We might have a bad relationship with someone, all based on the fact that they threaten us way down deep (How’s your relationship with someone who unintentionally makes you feel stupid?).
The trick is to recognize our reactions and what may drive them: fear. Fears are normal, healthy even, as long as they serve us well. It’s only when they are in the driver’s seat of our lives, occupying our thoughts, controlling our actions, and souring our relationships that they become a problem.
Awareness Then Choice
A week after the “you have fears, you big baby” leadership program (not fair, or true, but it’s how I felt), I was talking to a friend at work about the experience and started tearing up (my eyes were sweating, as my 10 year old once said). In that ten-minute conversation, I realized for the first time that I had fears, I knew where they came from (more or less), and as in all things, I get to choose my responses. Awareness was my first step- and I’ve spent the past 10 years figuring out how to respond to my fears effectively. Does it always work? No. I still have fears; we all do. But I’m getting better at pausing before I yell at the dog.