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The 3 Steps To Fearless Leadership

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Few adventures are as exhilarating as building a company from scratch — and that’s coming from a once avid kite-surfer like me.

That feeling when you land your first customer, close a round of funding, or mold your product into something powerful and elegant is indescribable. But once you hit certain milestones and invest a certain amount of money and time, the stakes start getting pretty high. There’s a growing pool of customers, investors, and employees that all have an interest in the success of your company.

Your employees live somewhere between the excitement of that success and the fear of failure. The countless initiatives they undertake every quarter can promise unparalleled growth or unfortunate disaster.

So how do you keep your employees’ minds out of the shadow-world and keep them excited about the possibility of changing the real world?

Face your fears

Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a component of your autopoietic processes, your biological survival mechanism. The heart unconsciously beats and the lungs draw in air. This is the biology behind your primary directive — don’t die.

When you do things that trigger the ‘don’t die’ response, like jumping out of an airplane, basic mental functions come on-line and materialize as fear. The rational mind knows that the activity is relatively safe, that you are statistically far more likely to die on the morning commute than by skydiving. So why does the latter scenario inspire fear?

Extreme sports and activities bring on adrenaline as a self-preservation mechanism. That’s where the rush comes from. But the ego can trick you into thinking that your physical well-being is being threatened during a work crisis when you are seated at your desk, free of any physical harm. You can experience an identical response to when you are looking down at the world from the open door of an airplane.

While no one has ever died because of a delayed product launch or poor sales figures, to your employees the risk feels just as real. They are experiencing a threat to their identities as successful and talented people, or a threat to their abilities to sustain their livelihood.

That feeling can completely shut a person down, so I have developed a 3 stage formula for converting fear into excitement and productivity:

1) Be transparent and share information with others.

2) Access your higher brain functions through breathing.

3) Step back and reflect on performance.

What you don’t know can hurt you

Leaders often think that keeping company information from the team minimizes the stress response, but if you try to always protect people you do them a disservice.

This theory comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. When you are shielded from stressful information, you don’t experience fear. You also don’t encounter a valuable opportunity to learn and grow, and therefore remain fragile.

Individuals become anti-fragile by being exposed to situations that challenge them. Constraints require you to think about problems in creative new ways, and allow you to be courageous and resilient. And when the entire team feels that they are up against the wall together, people automatically leverage each other’s strengths to solve problems.

Certainly the potential exists for the team to collapse. But when your company culture values transparency and encourages creativity, people deeply trust one another. They implement their seemingly superhuman abilities to always get the job done.

Remember to breathe

Survival often means feeling that you have control over the world. But rapid change can be perceived as the world changing in threatening and unexpected ways. When threatened, primal responses take people out of their creative ways of thinking and they go into a more primal fight or flight response. How do you shift back out of that?

Carl Jung said that fear is excitement without the breath. Consciously breathing is the one thing that will allow you to switch between the two states. You can then think clearly and rationally so that you can act with purpose and clarity.

I’ll give you an example. We recently shifted some of our marketing initiatives and added several new projects. The employee who owns those new tasks responded in his weekly 15Five that when he received the email about the changes, he literally gasped and stopped breathing.

This is part of being human. The point is not to subvert the experience. Employees are free to embrace their humanity, even those automatic responses that are difficult to control.

Over time, you can learn that initial reactions to change can’t be trusted. Learn to cultivate deeper breath, intentionally focus on your presence, and ground yourself. The next time you feel the heat at work, try slowly breathing deep down in your belly. Slow things down and observe your responses as opposed to being driven by them.

Fearless leadership, fearless employees

I used to have the experience of feeling very uncomfortable in social situations. The threshold for triggering my stress response was much lower. I had two choices, to eliminate the stress response by removing the stressful stimulus or to raise my stress threshold. By repeatedly checking-in with myself and assessing how I feel and why, I have limited the situations that cause me stress.

You can use the same process with others on your team. Ask them questions that provide them with the opportunity to step back, reflect and assess their behaviors. In this way, the 15Five process is like the heartbeat and breath of many organizations.

Employees put things in context and think about them through a different lens, a higher perspective. What worked well here and what didn’t? What can I do differently next time?

When you as a leader are transparent about challenges, your employees will take remedial steps to reposition the company on a successful growth trajectory. That information might inspire fear at first, but encourage them to breathe through it.

Then provide a process to look back and reflect on their own performance. Situations that once seemed impossible will eventually lead to growth and excitement for the individual employee, and greater success for your business.

Image Credit: Philip Leara

How do you shift your team out of fear-based shut down mode to harness their excitement and creativity?