Throughout history, the headlines and accolades have always belonged to the fearless. We celebrate the heroic souls who dismiss personal safety and stride forth into the fray against odds that seem insurmountable. St. George and the dragon, Jason and the Argonauts, Odd and the Frost Giants – almost every culture has its myths and legends lionizing bravery and self-sacrifice.
So, what is it that we find so enticing about bravery and fearlessness when most of us, in reality, prefer lives of relative safety and comfort?
Certainly, part of it has its origins in our evolutionary history: Adrenaline in correct doses is a highly addictive substance, hence our obsession with horror films and roller coasters.
However, one of the more significant reasons the fearless are so admired is that they very much represent the outliers in the human experience. Few of us regularly seek out truly risky situations. For instance, most of us prefer job security to the unknown of the entrepreneurial lifestyle, and though many of us do travel, most of us prefer to settle within a short drive from where we grew up. Also, we are mostly inclined to base our judgment on past experience instead of speculating with the new, however compelling.
In truth, we love to look at the adventurous road, but mostly from the comfort of the safe path. But is that such a bad thing? Can fear be a factor in achievement? And is the favouring of heroism and persistence over contrary data and good judgment actually a formula for success or simply a way to have stories told about you in the past tense?
As is the case with many such questions, it kind of depends.
Fear is one of the reasons we have survived
Fear, it turns out, is actually quite a useful emotion when it is appropriately applied. An overly curious nature mixed with naivety and overconfidence can be a recipe for disaster. Sending a canary into a mine to test for the presence of gas, while cruel, is actually a pretty savvy thing to do. In this case, fear not only ensures the survival of many miners, it also increases the chances of eventual success while reducing costs – miners are rather more expensive than songbirds.
What’s more, many of our latent fears – spiders, heights, water – are based on our survival; all have their origins in some pretty rational concerns.
Where fear can undermine leadership is when it becomes paralyzing, when judgment is replaced by constant evaluation and data-seeking.
The truth is, in any decision we make, we never have the complete picture or enough information. This, it turns out, is why good judgment is so critical to good leadership.
Fear can be an aid to judgment
One of the things that particularly defines leadership is a willingness and ability to make decisions and back them up. What this really means is embracing ownership of the results. One of the burdens of leadership is that when you do achieve success, it’s your team who won, but should failure be the outcome, only you lost.
This makes good judgment one of a leader’s key accountabilities, and fear must necessarily be a part of this equation. It has us identify and weigh risks, and consider more than just the possibility of success and account for it.
One of the criticisms we often make of strategic business plans is that the margins allowed for error are so slim. In other words, success is only guaranteed if everything goes exactly according to plan.
Of course, this is statistically unlikely, and a far better approach is to stack the odds of success in your favour by implementing systems and processes that allow for success, even on those days when not everything goes as it should.
Failure is often cited as being critical to success. But this is far more than a twee catchphrase of the eternally optimistic; it is a recognition that failure, rather than being a result, is a constant feature of the results we produce daily, and should therefore be accounted for.
See fear as a lever for positive change
If we accept that fear has a lot of downsides, how can we turn this around and use fear as an asset in achieving positive change, in order to generate the behavioural change we so desire? How can we generate an opposite fear, one that is linked to not changing?
TEDx speaker Kelly McGonigal and other health psychologists assert that, contrary to popular belief, not all stress (which is essentially a fear of possible outcomes) is necessarily bad. They further state that stressful experiences can be used to promote adaptive responses, and that individuals can be trained to think of stress arousal as a way of maximizing performance.
The long and short of it is that reframing fear as an asset can not only remove impediments to performance, but can actually serve to heighten and lift it. Fear (and its close cousin, stress) is suffering from some bad PR and really needs some rebranding.
We all need reminding that sometimes fear has been the good guy, and it has certainly been a considerable asset in the armoury of social change. Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, famously tells the story of Atatürk, a military leader in the then Ottoman Empire and later the first president of Turkey, who, in an effort to stabilize the food supply, added an additional carbohydrate to the mix – in this case, potatoes – flipping the fear of eating potatoes into a fear of not eating them. In fact, by decreeing them a ‘royal’ vegetable that no commoner was to eat, he ensured that not only was the fear flipped, but a desire to eat them was achieved.
Rather than seeing fear as one-sided, these examples show that, by seeking to defeat or decrease the fear that was limiting them, people found that a better, or more compelling, strategy was to increase the fear on the other side of the equation.
Rebalance the fear
This is perhaps the most important point. We are not advocating that you ignore your fears or throw yourself at them as part of a midlife extreme-sport crisis, nor are we suggesting they are all irrational and imaginary. What we are suggesting is that they can be useful for driving change and shifting behaviour, and this relies on shifting the balance of the fear equation from one side to the other.
For instance, if you are afraid to go for a jog because you’re looking a little soft around the middle and are scared that people might laugh at ‘the fat guy in tight-fitting exercise gear,’ that’s one side of the fear ledger. But if a chainsaw-wielding madman were storming through your house, you would not only jog, but hurdle, parkour, long-jump and sprint, all while dialling for the emergency services. (And if anyone did choose to criticize you at this juncture, you would happily use them as an obstacle to slow down the chainsaw-wielding maniac.)
Next time you’re quaking in your boots and wishing you had picked up that ‘clinical strength’ antiperspirant, stop to consider fear not as a barrier to success but possibly as one of the most overlooked and underutilized motivators we have for driving us to success. Then set about reframing your fear.
The trick is to see fear – when appropriate – as a useful tool of leadership rather than as something to avoid.
Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory are behavioural researchers and strategists. Flanagan is chief creative officer at The Impossible Institute, while Gregory is president and CEO of The Impossible Institute.