Leadership and the Fear of Failure

Fear in and of itself is not a bad thing. On the most basic level, it protects us from possibly dangerous consequences, such as getting burned by the fire or getting hurt in combat.

The same principle applies to the topic of failure. Everyone reading this article has failed and will fail again at something, sometime in the future. For some people, the fear of failure becomes such a significant psychological threat that it overpowers their motivation to succeed.

The fear of doing things wrong can cause many people to sabotage their chances for success, often unconsciously.

Most leaders, experience a fear of failure at some point in their leadership duties. “Fear” and “failure” are not dirty words, but you’ll find most leaders treat them as such. They go out of their way to hide their fears and explain away their failures rather than confront them and learn from them.

In fact, things have gone so far that the word failure is quickly being removed from our business vocabulary and rebranded as a challenge, obstacle, barrier, set-back, a miss, development opportunity etc. Fear of failure is a very real constant for every leader. From handling organizational complexities to ensuring stability and growth; from dealing with losses to adapting to change overnight — pressure causes them to cave in from all sides.

There are standard leadership practices that contribute to a leader setting themselves up to fail.

Here are some of them:

  • When leaders fall into “the clairvoyance trap” — believing that the people who follow them automatically sense their goals and know what they want without being told.
  • When they lose sight of the big picture: when this happens, instead of “thinking big” as all great leaders must, “they suddenly start thinking small.” This translates into micromanaging and becoming consumed by trivial and unimportant things.
  • When they avoid risk: past successes can breed a fear of failure in leaders. “Can I continue to operate at this high level of performance?” they wonder. Paradoxically, the longer a leader is successful, the higher his or her perceived cost of failure.
  • Poor self-management: leadership can be both stimulating and demanding. Leaders who fail to take care of their physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs can find themselves stretched too thin to work strategically.

So how to reduce the fear of failing and lead more effectively?

Managing expectations:

Leaders would benefit from a focus on realistic expectations of themselves and others because unrealistic expectations of oneself or perceived high expectations from others can undermine progress and success. One suggestion is to identify the factors such as the desire to be accepted, protecting the projected personal image, and maintaining relationships that may set unrealistic expectations of self and others.

Managing yourself

High-pressure situations are often accompanied with varying degrees of change and uncertainty that must be handled effectively. Change and uncertainty often cause anxiety and feelings of insecurity. When a leader does not have the emotional maturity, internal strength, and skills to deal with pressure, this can result in a person responding to pressure inappropriately.

Pressure-proof your team

A leader who is unable to cope with pressure effectively can add more pressure on their team. In doing so, they may inadvertently contribute to a climate of confusion, instability and conflict. Once you learn to excel under pressure and gain control over your emotional response to it, you can influence your team to react positively to pressure too.

Forgo perfectionism

As a leader, there’s a good chance that you or others have expected perfectionism at some point in your career. Instead of striving for perfection, strive for progress and aim for excellence. It’s a vicious cycle: perfectionism leads to procrastination, and procrastination adds to your pressures. Learn to let it go.

Follow the 80–20 rule.

Faced with a problem, many people spend about 80 percent of their time and energy dwelling on the problem. Instead, devote 80 percent to a solution and 20 percent to the problem. When you turn it around, you’ll likely find you’re less stressed and more productive.

Keep things simple.

Effective leaders know how to boil things down. They understand their priorities and work only on the things that really matter. When you return to the basics you can keep things uncomplicated and less stressful. It’s that simple.

Create a longer-term perspective.

Many effective leaders know the impact crisis has on themselves and their team. The best leaders, the most productive that we have seen, understand that crisis passes with the right supports. they focus on supporting people in teh right way so that the lasting effects crisis can be minimised.

Final Thoughts

It’s good to remember that sometimes the fear of failure can be good for you. It can keep you on track and help you meet a deadline. It can also be a positive force, motivating you to perform at a higher level. But, more frequently, a fear of failure can have a negative impact. It can stop you from trying new things and reduce your creativity. It is thus crucial to learn how to manage yourself, your emotions and behaviours.

If you want to improve your leadership skills and shake off the fear of failure you can book a free leadership consultation with Sile.

Executive & Leadership Development Specialist for Individual & Organisational Performance. www.silewalsh.com Podcast: Tilted Coaching #Coachingpsychology

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