Why Fear is Every Leader’s Worst Enemy


What do leaders struggle with? High-achieving performers and executives generally direct their attention to practical matters regarding execution of strategies, completion of large initiatives, revenue generation and so much more. Obviously, lofty goals come with their own challenges to face on the path of continued success for the individual and the organization. While it’s tempting to throw tools and training of all kinds at high performers to support their endeavors, is that what leaders truly need? Is it really as simple as offering additional strategic and tactical advice?

If the answer was yes, then no company anywhere would find it challenging to reach their goals and realize their vision with the right talent in the mix.

Because humans are involved, it’s not that simple. Businesses and HR departments spend a lot of time and energy trying to find programs and approaches that will equip their high performers with tools rather than taking the time to find out what makes their leaders and innovators tick. Personality tests are helpful, but they are limited in their utility. Likewise, skills- and habit-focused training is somewhat generic in that there’s often a one-size-fits-most, formulaic approach. The truth is that there is no out-of-the-box test, training, or formula that will succeed in moving a leader forward if there’s an underlying reason why the individual hesitates to do what needs to be done in the first place. Typically, there is an underlying reason, and it’s a common one despite evidence of outward success.

That reason is fear.

Yes, fear. We tend to believe that the more success someone has, the less fear is a factor in how they think and operate. In my experience as an executive coach, that’s simply not true. In fact, as the perceived stakes become higher with more responsibility and status, fear becomes more complex. It may not show up in recognizable form, making it harder to trace to the root cause. Perhaps fear shows up as hesitation to take action or have a difficult conversation. It frequently shows up in the form of procrastination, as it’s easier to put something off than face the reasons why they won’t take it on. It can also manifest as time spent on areas that are less critical. It’s more comfortable to focus on a less complicated action or project rather than deal with the real priority because there’s risk and uncertainty involved.

To further complicate matters, being near the top of an organization can be isolating. Who can you be vulnerable with? Can you be truthful without being punished for doing so? Will what you share be used against you? Will the truth of the leader’s experience make them appear weak and poorly equipped to handle their role? Whether these concerns are based in reality or not, sharing vulnerabilities and asking for support is perceived as too big of a risk to take.

So, what can you do to provide the support that high-performing leaders need?

  1. Invest in your high-performers. Not generically, but specifically. If you have a budget allocated to the professional development of your employees, do not direct all of those funds to out-of-the-box assessments and training. Look for opportunities to provide one-on-one coaching to promising and/or highly-effective leaders. Better yet, make sure the coaches are outside of your organization. The best way to maximize the impact of coaching is to create safe space for the leader to be fully vulnerable, which means the person they are talking to cannot be tied to the organization.
  2. Encourage a leadership culture of transparency. No one benefits when high-performers focus solely on tangible achievement. Established, seasoned leaders in your organization should share their personal experiences in navigating crisis, change, risk, etc. They should not talk solely about the tasks or activities that took place to get through a particular issue, but what it felt like for the leader to go through the challenges. What were they worried about? Who did they talk to? Did they feel isolated or supported? Transparency from high-level leaders gives the rest of the organization permission to talk about the personal experiences that are closely tied to their professional achievements and outcomes. It simultaneously provides additional insight into where improvements or other changes may be needed in the overall culture/approach of a business as more employees feel empowered to share what they experience.
  3. Ask your people what they need. While it’s necessary to focus on the typical topics that pertain to the running of the business, make sure to include conversation about your team member as a human. Do not put off one-to-one meetings. Make sure they are a top priority and treat them as such. Set a clear intention to go beyond surface matters to get a pulse on how each team member is really doing. Do they seem stressed? Withdrawn? Anxious? Are they eager to please and therefore less likely to tell you what’s really going on with them? It may take several meetings like this to establish the kind of trust that results in sharing on their part.

No matter what industry your business is in, people are at the heart of it. Empower them to reach their true potential.


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