How Irrational Fear is Debilitating

leadership fearCurrently within our culture fear seems to be running rampant. Unfortunately, most of it seems to be some variation or another of the bogeyman. Fear can be empowering or debilitating to a leader. It can render you helpless to act, or worse, cause you to take really stupid actions that actually damage your situation instead of protecting you. Substantiated fear, for example when your reptilian brain has you jump back immediately at the sight of a snake, can be very healthy. Rational fear expressed as heightened awareness based on facts showing that you are facing threats, can focus your attention, accelerate your pace, increase your team's sense of connection, and increase your odds of successfully overcoming the challenge.

You will probably remember Captain Sully Sullenberger and his successful landing on the Hudson River in New York during a severe in-flight emergency in 2009. This situation is a practical example of rational fear. The flight crew got the information that their engines had shut down. They analyzed all data immediately, reviewed available landing sites, made a rational decision, and focused their attention on executing a safe landing for their passengers.

Irrational fear whether it be "communism" in the ‘50s, terrorism in its many incarnations in the last decade, or your own personal monster in the closet or under your bed, can be so out of proportion to the real facts and statistical odds as to be laughable unless you are the one who is freaking out. An extreme example occurred last weekend when a friend and I were attending an international conference in New York City. My friend arrived early and planned to stay with his brother well outside the city which he did on Friday night. As he left for the conference his sister-in-law announced that he was forbidden to return to the house that evening as there would be people from Africa at the conference and he would be bringing Ebola into their home. He would have to take his stuff and go find a hotel for the next two nights. The high drama on the news had driven this poor woman almost to hysteria.

Now, with no disrespect to anyone who has gotten this virulent and mostly fatal disease, the likelihood of my friend bringing it home that night was probably about that of being hit by a meteor. The point of this anecdote is to demonstrate how disproportionate a reaction can be and how the decisions that follow may not be good for you and the people around you.

One of our 2130 Operating Principles is "confront and deal with real issues." We call real issues the ones that no one will talk about and that are often really old. As a leader, the real issues arising from your own irrational fears will often show up as explosions of dominance or anger.  They may show up as decisions that make no sense to your team as they are driven by your need to protect yourself. They may show up as an unwillingness to engage in conversations when you feel threatened. Almost certainly any of these reactions are driven by deep-seated fears that are not at all supported by the facts and data in the present day.

Are you willing to courageously investigate reality and contrast the facts with your fears? Are you willing to confront and deal with the fears that have been sucking the joy and satisfaction out of your leadership? It's up to you.

photo credit: hang_in_there via photopin cc