(This report is an excerpt from “7 Moments… That Define Excellent Leaders”.)

We live in a society defined by its insecurities. We fear the loss of our jobs, our health, our money, our relationships, our sense of control. Here is a sampling of some less common fears to illustrate how far human fears reach:

  • Dendrophobia – fear of trees
  • Chronomentrophobia – fear of clocks
  • Pentheraphobia – fear of a mother-in-law
  • Consultophobia – fear of management consultants (I made that one up!)
  • Xanthrophobia – fear of the color yellow
  • Blennophobia – fear of slime

You get the point. Fear is deeply imbedded in many aspects of our day-to-day lives. Check out the evening news. Many of the stories are posed to get our attention by playing on our fears. A headline that reads, “Are you poisoning your family at the dinner table?” is guaranteed to get attention. So is the one asking, “Are your children safe at school?” In fact, when I was a youngster, I remember my mother saying, “We can watch the six o’clock news and not eat or watch the 11 o’clock news and not sleep!”

Since we fear most that which is unknown to us, defining moments of change can occur when we choose to know our fears.

Fear keeps us in the background, convincing us we can never accomplish our dreams. It is the voice of fear that tells us to keep quiet and to stay within our comfort zones. Without question, it is fear that stops us in our tracks toward our goals and limits what we are willing to try. For many, it is fear that makes us lead a smaller life. But fear can also motivate us.

For Li Vo, the young mother of two, facing her fear of heights was the least of her worries one night in the 1970s. Looking much younger than her years, she had joined the crowd of teenagers as they marched through her neighborhood toward the harbor that evening. Her Communist neighbors hadn’t noticed her slip from her modest apartment and into the crowd. Her destination: America.

As the group neared the harbor, she glanced carefully at every vessel they passed until she saw the ship that would transport her and her family out of Saigon and to freedom, a journey they had saved for and plotted the past three years.

Somewhere, from out of the crowd, her husband Hui joined her with their two children. “You must climb up,” her husband instructed her.

As she gazed up at the looming side of the ship, her old fear returned, but only for a moment as she gazed into the expectant faces of her children. “Follow Mommy,” she encouraged, hooking her foot onto the first rung of the flimsy rope ladder. “We will be fine.”

As she slowly took step after step, she allowed herself to look down, only long enough to make sure the children were following. At last, she reached the top and climbed over the ship’s railing.

At 2 a.m., as the ship steamed out of the harbor, loaded with new refugees, Li and her family were on board and safe, leaving their native Vietnam far behind. Counting stops at refugee camps in Hong Kong and the Philippines, it took almost a year for the Vo family to finally reach the U.S. and the hospitality of their sponsoring family.

Even today, some 30 years later, Li remembers her defining moment. It was the moment she faced down her lifelong fear of heights to carry her family to freedom.

Knowing our fears and facing them will free us also.

The acronym F.E.A.R. stands for “False Evidence Appearing Real.” It’s a true definition of fear. It describes how our minds can weave together false tales of how situations will turn out.

If I ask my boss about that promotion, I will get blacklisted. If I terminate Joan, I know she will sue us. If I don’t nail this project, I will be off the fast track. If I don’t get that bonus, I will never be able to afford our new mortgage payment. If I succeed at this job, I don’t think I can take it to the next level again.

Fear is really a secondary emotion, not a primary one. Since we jump to fear so reflexively, we fail to think about our first reaction, which is the cause for our fear.

Causes of our behavior are easier to address than the symptoms, like fear. For example, our fear of flying might be a symptom of a high need for control, and giving up that control produced tremendous anxiety – fear. Our fear of public speaking (#1 on the world’s list of fears) might be a symptom of insecurities – we are not expert enough or prepared enough to give a fluent speech.

The key is to identify our primary response to a situation or change and think about it. When we stop to think about our fear, we can determine if our primary response is insecurity, sense of loss, need for control or discomfort with uncertainty. Once we honestly identify our primary response, we start to know our fear more intimately. Then, we can equip ourselves with information and experiences to fearlessly manage change in our lives. We must think about and act on our fear instead of simply reacting to it.

This thought reminds me of the prison warden who told the condemned man to order whatever he wanted for his last meal, and he offered suggestions, “Lobster, Filet Mignon, Beef Wellington or shrimp?”

“No,” the prisoner said. “I’ll just have a bowl of mushrooms.”

“Why mushrooms?” the warden asked him.

“I’ve always been afraid to eat them.”

Don’t wait until it’s too late to know your fears. Fear is a natural reaction to the challenges of life and leadership. To grow, change and excel, we must face them.

Excellent leaders listen and watch for what they fear. They seek feedback and other signs that might tell them to take a hard left off a straight path.

Since the information leaders receive can often be filtered to some degree, it’s up to the leader to get the full story. How do we do that? We can look for dissenting opinions, assumptions and perspectives to minimize our blind spots. If all we hear is “yes,” we should be careful. In fact, we shouldn’t take “yes” for an answer!

We can’t wait for different opinions to come to us… we must seek them out. Excellent leaders seek “no holds barred” input from employees in meetings, one-on-one updates, surveys, e-mails, in the break room or even after hours.

One of the most common defining moments I hear from employees is the time their manager asked them for input. It’s amazing how something so simple can be so powerful. By asking for feedback to stay ahead of the fear curve, you can create a defining moment for you team – you can redefine “how things are done around here.”

Our greatest fear should be that we will waste a moment… a potentially defining moment.

Leadership excellence is rooted in a fearless confidence that what is discovered will pave a new, brighter path for the team.

Know fear!

Seize the moment now!  Take the 7 Moments Indicator to see how close you are to leadership excellence.

Copyright © 2006 by Lee J. Colan