By Neal Eisenstein, MBA, MCC. If I learned anything from the biopic, Harriet, about Harriet Tubman or the Jack Reacher novels that I’ve been addicted to for years, it’s that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.
While taking risks and trying new things is more important than the petty anxieties or annoyances that I might have now and then, this doesn’t mean they stop existing. For example, I can look no further than the recent fender benders on both cars in our driveway as a result of slippery ice and snow. How about the tricky conversation with a client where he’ll need to understand how his behavior, in times of stress, can make colleagues feel? Making these judgments on moving forward — either money-out that I’d rather spend elsewhere or prioritizing the difficult conversation that matters for a client to grow — mean nothing if one doesn’t have the strength to act on it.
So how can we be more like the seemingly fearless doers of the world? The self-assured leaders that tackle one challenge after another with grace, agility and balance? The folks who obviously have their share of doubts and anxieties but seem unfettered by them? The people who allow themselves to experience the fear, then take a deep breath and do it anyway?
1. Coming to Terms with Your Weaknesses
A famous Salvador Dali quote goes like this, “Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.”
At the root of being fearless is strong self-awareness — understanding that you have flaws, you will make mistakes and you will fail. “The idea that an overblown self-confidence is going to render you fearless is a misconception,” says author John Vespasian. “Self-delusion is not going to protect you from discouragement, depression, or anxiety.”
“Individuals become fearless only when they accept their own weaknesses, and as a result, learn to deal calmly with stressful situations. They become fearless because they are willing to give up the pretension of invulnerability, while at the same time, they are committed to remaining effective and alert.”
2. Be Realistic with Your Goals
… But still optimistic. Yes, it’s a tough balance and we don’t always get this right. Vespasian advises, “One of the key aspects of becoming fearless is learning to be realistic without falling prey to cynicism and disillusionment. You have to learn to view reality as it is, but also maintain your ability to view the positive in each negative situation.”
A part of me knew that it would be a bad idea for my daughter to leave the house to pick up dinner when she complained about being exhausted from a long day at work. In that moment, I pulled the “Dad” card, rationalizing that she should do the pick-up as I was paying and had an equally stressful day. I was less self-aware in that moment, feeding into my own stuff which rationalized avoidance in the particular moment that contributed to unnecessary repairs. I could have drowned myself for days in remorse and guilt and self-loathing, but chose to focus on moving on. I was thankful that she wasn’t physically hurt and that I had obviously made the wrong choice and not to dwell on it. Oh, and the money out for repairs is simply the cost incurred for not trusting my gut. Move on.
According to Vespasian, “Fearless people are always able to see hopeful signs, even when everything seems to be falling apart. Learning to be optimistic will help you stay calm and fully operational in crisis situations, and reinforce your self-confidence.”
3. Create More Balance at Work
Experiencing fear is a natural human response to threatening situations and we actually need this emotion. Fear alerts us to approaching danger and potentially saves us from a career disaster… But only if it is kept in check. “You can dramatically reduce such negative emotional reactions if you have cultivated greater balance,” Vespasian says. “And I mean balance between your professional and private life, and between your short-term and long-term goals.”
“Balance makes you strong and self-confident, because you are not dependent on just one thing. It removes from your mind the compulsion to win all the time. A balanced life is the greatest contributor to a fearless personality.”
4. Reconstruct Your Inner Voice
Robert Mauerer, author of Mastering Fear, suggests that at the root of fearlessness is the pattern of conversations or stories we tell ourselves. “People tend have either a nurturing or a harsh inner voice,” Mauerer says.
During times of adversity, successful people have a voice that reminds them it is okay to make mistakes, be afraid, or ask for help. On the other hand, he says, “People who are afraid of risk will often confess they are afraid of the emotional beating they will give themselves if their efforts fail.” If your inner voice is your harshest critic, know that this voice can be reprogrammed.
Returning to the challenge of having a difficult conversation with a client is a good example to process at this point. While I may have reluctance or fear about the reaction to a difficult topic, making these feelings the reason that I don’t move forward to bring my best to the work as a coach, is not fair or helpful. After 20 years as an executive coach, what I teach others is what I consistently aim to do. Yes, sometimes, I miss the mark. Sometimes, I’m not sure about the best way to move forward, but not often. For me, I notice the resistance and the emotions but give myself no choice but to move through my own tunnel of indecision. What I like or dislike, really good at or afraid of, doesn’t much factor into it for me. I make this choice. My inner voice is very clear about this.
According to Mauerer, “The place to begin is with a plan, starting with examining your inner dialogue when setbacks occur. Start with asking yourself, ‘Is the conversation you are having inside the same one you’d have if you were supporting and comforting a colleague or friend?’ If it isn’t, write out what you would say to someone else facing the same challenge you are facing.”
5. Seek Out Teachers
One of the most debilitating and time-wasting responses to fear is letting it fester internally, ping-ponging between you and your dark, judgmental inner voice. In order to understand and learn how to translate fears into positive action, you’re going to need someone who you can learn from and someone you can trust.
“This can be hard for people moving up the career ladder, as much of our success comes from individual competition,” says Mauerer. “Being able to compete against others and outshine others is essential up to a point. The next set of skills, equally crucial, is the ability to ask for help and seek support. In other words, learning how to be vulnerable to build bridges of trust.”
Becoming more fearless is NOT about eliminating fear. Rather, it is about diminishing the negative impact on our thinking and behavior in order to shift back into a posture of balance and positivity.
For more about becoming more fearless, and developing your leadership skills, schedule a consultation with Neal.