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Leading When You Are Afraid

That doesn’t sound like a topic for a bunch of high-powered men and women whose great super-powers are fueled by their confidence, does it? But there’s not an authentic leader who could say they haven’t had at least moments of true fear in the last several years.

It made me think of my dad. He was a member of the Screaming Eagles, the 101st Airborne paratroopers in the United States Army during World War II. They were highly trained and highly respected for their skill. Dad said they trained ceaselessly and were schooled over and over on how to do the landings, etc., but they practiced by jumping off the back of a fast-moving truck. There weren’t enough planes available to use for practice. The day before they took off under cover of darkness in June 1944 to jump into Normandy on D-Day, he personally stood right beside Winston Churchill’s jeep. “So close he could have untied his shoelaces,” Dad said, as the general passionately poured encouragement into them and told them they could do it—that the entire world was looking to them and believing in them.

He said that to a man they were greatly afraid. There was complete silence as they boarded the plane and sat along the side walls, waiting for the moment to jump. He was 1st Lt. James Mason and was the leader on his plane. He had to stand at the opening of the plane as they ran out the door into the night, lit up only by shooting flares. If anyone hesitated, he had to push them, and then follow the last man himself. Once on the ground safely he had to untangle himself from his chute and quietly move through the darkness, listening for the sounds, giving signals, and collecting any men he could find in the area. Twenty-seven men jumped from that plane with him. He saw only thirteen of them again. Afraid? You bet.

Here’s the question he faced, and you and I face in our own situations: How can you inspire your team to achieve the impossible when you yourself are feeling afraid and uncertain about the outcome? Can you achieve it? How?

How do you get out of your paralysis and get going? I want to suggest a few things I have learned from great leaders and my own experience:

1. Build your emotional courage. This is your ability to act thoughtfully, strategically, and powerfully while feeling afraid. We make a mistake when we think we have to lose our fears before we lead. That’s a huge mistake. We will never lead if that’s our thought.

My dad said they were neither heroes nor cowards. They were normal young men in a very scary situation. Actually, they were more than that. They were very brave men in a scary situation. Their fear was appropriate—but they were facing it. They felt the fear but faced it and moved forward. They relied on their training and inner resources and jumped out the door anyway. That’s emotional courage.

2. Focus on the process—the next step. When your fear is legitimately big, don’t focus on the big picture, although ordinarily that’s a great tactic. Dad and his men couldn’t focus on liberating France. They had to focus on getting safely on the ground, then finding their team, then they would keep going a step at a time. When we’re scared or intimidated or pursuing something so big that we don’t even really know where to begin, we need to focus on the process that will get to the outcome. A good process will guide you along the path to get you where you want to go, and you can follow a good process no matter what you’re feeling.

3. Communicate clearly. You are responsible to direct the attention of your team. Leaders often accidentally communicate in times of fear in such a “commando” forceful way, saying work harder, be more accountable, push through this, that they build more fear instead of motivating or build confidence. Dad and the other leaders were told passwords to use, phrases that identified their team and built confidence that they weren’t alone. They were being led. His responsibility was to remind them clearly what they were doing, empathize with their feelings and own his own personal challenges, give simple and clear direction, and remind them of all the reasons they had to believe.

That’s our job as leaders too. We need to share vision—remind them of where we are headed. Connect with them vulnerably. Don’t drag this out, but let them know everyone is afraid and you are challenged too, but also confident. Give simple, clear, feasible directions. Give them proof that what you are doing is effective. Share any proof you have that your efforts are making a difference. Don’t exaggerate. Be honest and grateful.

You can say things like this: “I am excited about what the future can look like when we start where we are and take some risks to do things differently. Obviously, our current situation is disheartening. I see and feel what you do. But there are opportunities and doors opening for us. I don’t have all the answers, but I believe in us. Together we can make it happen. You are really good at what you do. Look at the progress we have already made. Donnie has streamlined our meetings and helped us make better use of our time. Alexis trimmed our client data and now we have a clear idea of who we really need to impact. Maddie and Alan have already made sixty high touch contacts, and we are getting positive feedback on our desires. This is just SOME of what I am hearing, and it just proves what our outcomes can be when we risk doing things differently. I am really proud to be part of this team.”

Build your skill in communicating like this. Get it down and then repeat it all the time. Shifting behavior in others requires repetition. You may become bored with it, and you may feel that you’re overdoing it, but use your newly developed emotional courage to feel those feelings and keep repeating yourself anyway.

Let me talk to you for a moment about your fears as a leader personally. Here are what psychologists tell us are some of the most common fears that leaders, in particular, face.

Being seen as a pretender, an imposter. If you secretly feel you’re not really good enough or smart enough for leadership, join the crowd. But you are where you are for a reason. Don’t run. Feel your fear and be great anyway.

Being criticized. Hey, it just comes with the job. If you never get criticized, you are playing it too safe. If you have no critics, you’ll likely have no success. Take it in stride and strive to be your own best. Meet your own standard of excellence. On the other side of your fear is everything you need to be.

Failing. Failing is not fatal—it’s simply part of succeeding. Fail forward. In the end we regret only the chances we didn’t take.

Not being a skilled communicator. You may not be naturally great, but you can get better and do it well. Practice your speaking or writing skills. The more you practice, rehearse, and revise, the more confident and effective you will be.

Making decisions. A lack of decisiveness can cripple us. Hard choices are sometimes necessary without much time to reflect. Make the best decision you can based on where you want to go, not where you are, and then move on. There can be new decisions when necessary.

Taking responsibility. It can be really scary to realize that much is riding on your decisions. Truth is, your leadership is the cause of and the solution to the things that matter, and you can’t escape that responsibly by postponing or evading it. But when you move past your fear and take responsibility is when you can actually change things.

Not getting results. Stop focusing on the results you want and concentrate on the actions you can take right now that will lead to those results.

The best leaders concentrate on developing their inner life, and then they lead from that health. They learn how to deal with their negative emotions, and they are able to be honest and vulnerable with their teams. In this new year, I am encouraging myself and you to spend regular time in self-reflection. Track your emotions and journal or talk about them with a trustworthy person. I am a person of faith, and I find being honest in prayer is very healing for me. Create a daily routine for reflection.

Start small in sharing with your team. Don’t dump the whole load at once. Building these honest and open relationships doesn’t happen overnight. Read the room. Use your emotional IQ. Plan your sharing in advance. You do not want to share every thought that pops into your head in the dark of night. Make sure you don’t vent; instead, share some challenging experiences in the best and most helpful ways that don’t make others uncomfortable.

Dedicate time and space for sharing emotions in your team. Just like oversharing can backfire, sharing at the wrong time or wrong place can be awkward. But these things WILL come out at the wrong time and place if they aren’t given one that IS right. Consider creating a weekly check-in with an opportunity to share highs and lows, and you showing by example how it is appropriately done. When you model how to handle your own negative emotions, you help everyone!

Have your own support network and take time to recharge. Disconnecting from work when you’re off the clock reduces stress and promotes wellbeing. Don’t be afraid to let people see you taking breaks, keeping your evenings free, using your vacation days, and pursuing hobbies outside of work.

Share the good and the bad. No one is perfect. If you’re not proud of how you handled a negative emotion or challenging situation, be open about that too. That will help you AND your team learn and grow.

The best leaders are afraid sometimes. They lead anyway, and they lead well by leading themselves first, facing the fear.

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