The great leadership challenge: fear of failure

Of all the challenges leaders face, none is more pervasive yet hidden than fear of failure.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy

Leadership is a tough job that requires courage. Doubts, insecurities and fears make organizational challenges more difficult and, in extreme cases, insurmountable. No matter how confident you may appear, anxiety can occur at pivotal times in your career.

Being able to talk about your fears is best done in a confidential coaching relationship. Fears are normal emotions that emerge in times of crisis. It’s been said that courage has no benchmark unless one grasps the reality of fear. Fears are real, often strong and quite disruptive, but your response to them defines your leadership hardiness.

Ironically, many of the leaders I work with don’t admit to fear of failure, out of fear the competition will perceive them as weak. Like an undiagnosed infectious disease, however, it can spread quickly. Fearful leaders can debilitate their organizations’ ability to function, compromising productivity, decision-making, strategic thinking and employee management. Once infected, such leaders are likely to experience issues in their personal lives, as well.

Organizations rely on their leaders to set a vision; provide direction; and implement plans that instill trust, confidence and the performance needed to meet desired goals. Leaders must possess strength and determination to face these challenges and overcome barriers on the way to success.

From what I’ve seen in my experience working with executives, the task of managing people, with their various motivations, strengths and weaknesses, can prove daunting. Organizational dynamics, rapidly changing markets and tough competition only add to leaders’ challenges.

Even heroes have fears, to some degree. But they do what’s required despite their fears, ultimately becoming stronger in the process. 

Fear of failure can sometimes be suppressed, but when this proves impossible, you can no longer ignore it. You must deal with it.

Does this sound familiar to you? When was the last time you felt the bite of fear of failure nipping? It takes courage to admit it, which is why working with a confidential coach is so advantageous.

How Leaders Recognize the Signs: Fear of Failure

Fear of failure has several telltale—and observable—signs. You’re likely to set your ambitions too low or too high, explains entrepreneurship expert Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012). 

  • Goals set too low reflect a lack of self-confidence and a fear of achieving normal benchmarks, he explains in a 2012 CNN.com article.
  • Conversely, goals set too high serve as a mask for your insecurities. Failure is expected, as no one could possibly achieve these targets—which means there shouldn’t be any criticism. Liken it to an attempt to swim the English Channel in rough seas: No one is expected to accomplish it, so we bestow admiration on those who try, yet fail.

Procrastination

Another key sign of fear of failure is a tendency to procrastinate as an avoidance tactic. If you can put off achieving a goal, you can also delay the dreaded failure. Look for unfounded hesitancy, second-guessing and finding “reasons” to delay or alter plans. 

University of Ottawa psychologist Timothy Pychyl describes research that shows a direct inverse correlation between people’s sense of autonomy, competence, relatedness and vitality and their tendency to procrastinate in a 2009 Psychology Today article. 

Other signs of fear of failure include:

  • A consistent pattern of indecision 
  • Anxiety over risks or change 
  • An excessive desire or attempt to control circumstances
  • An inability to delegate or trust others to perform tasks “correctly” 
  • Perfectionism (often leading to micromanagement)
  • An overriding fear of “things going wrong” 
  • Obsessing over details
  • Making sure everything is “just so”

Which of these tendencies resonate with you? They are fairly common among high-performing leaders, and they are often behaviors that are rewarded by results. But at what cost?

What do you think? As always, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

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