fear of failure

Of all the challenges leaders face, none is more pervasive yet hidden than the 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 appear, fear of failure can occur at pivotal times in your career.

Talking about your fears is best done in a confidential coaching relationship. Fears are normal emotions that emerge in times of crisis. 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.

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 the strength and determination to face these challenges and overcome barriers to success.

From my experience working with executives, I’ve seen that 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. Fear of failure can sometimes be suppressed, but you can no longer ignore it when this proves impossible. You must deal with it.

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).


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:

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

Which of these tendencies resonates 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 Causes Fear of Failure?

Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012), offers some background on causes. Several factors contribute to developing a fear of failure. A childhood history of pain or suffering can lead you to anticipate the worst and expect negative outcomes. Growing up around fearful people also plays a role, as does a lack of positive adult role models. Children in these environments struggle to learn optimism and perseverance.

Traumatic experiences framed by failure can train your mind to distrust life in general. Past humiliations and rejections can scar one’s spirit to the point of dismay and fear.

Placing too high a value on a specific goal transforms it into an unrealistic objective. This can distort reality to the point of obsession and magnify the possibility of failure. The dire need to obtain something creates the illusion that life will be awful if the goal isn’t accomplished; the consequent failure becomes traumatic. This all-or-nothing perspective has a potentially crushing outcome, one to be truly feared.

Perhaps the common denominator for all causes of fear of failure is an overarching sense of purposelessness or worthlessness—or, as University of Ottawa psychologist Timothy Pychyl describes it, a low sense of self.

According to Kelsey, our culture often convinces us that losing face is to be avoided at all costs. Regardless of our background, nothing feels as hopeless as life without meaning. Rejection or humiliation from failure can prompt feelings of worthlessness. At this level of despair, we may choose an attitude of fear to prevent failure, but it backfires when fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perspective Is Everything

Living with a frequent fear of failure is a significant personal struggle. While fear may not be completely eliminated, it can be overcome. A major shift in perspective is required—something with which an experienced leadership coach can assist you.

Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012), offers good suggestions. 

Begin by recognizing that no one is immune to failure. It happens to everyone. Coming to grips with fear, understanding that it’s real, and knowing if it’s affecting your leadership (and life) are steps in the right direction. Fear is not always bad. Healthy fears allow us to respect and remain aware of potential hazards.

But many fears are unhealthy, including the fear of failure. It’s perfectly OK—and, in fact, advisable—to name it for what it is and devise strategies for dealing with it. It’s admirable to watch someone admit a fear and decide to address it. It’s painful to watch someone deny or hide behind fear, allowing it to take over. Such fears are seldom secret. Others see you struggle, so hiding behind a fear doesn’t work.

Another positive shift in perspective is recognizing that people always survive failures. Failure is really not the black cloud some believe it to be. It’s rarely the final blow. Life goes on. If you worry about others judging you, your fears are likely overblown. Everyone has experienced failure at one time or another, so it tends to make us less critical of others.

Failure actually has intrinsic benefits. We learn and grow through failing. Wisdom, work ethic, strength, and self-improvement are seldom attributable to a continued string of successes. There’s no better way to discover your strengths and weaknesses than through failure’s lessons. People admire humility and openness, which engender trust.

And while we’re on the subject, what exactly is a “failure”? Is setting out to achieve a worthy goal, applying your best efforts, and coming up short the true definition? How does this compare to someone who does nothing or gives less than his best effort?

Most of us would agree that failure is the act of not trying, giving up, or caring. Perspective is everything.

Name It, Claim It, Reframe It

Who hasn’t dealt with the fear of failure in one’s career at one time or another? Several process-oriented changes can lessen the effects of failure or reduce its likelihood. In general, conquering the fear of failure is a process of naming, claiming, and reframing it.

Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012), suggests some practical steps for dealing with the fear of failure.

  1. Assess the possible outcomes of a given situation. Make a list of the general causes and probabilities of each outcome. Most of the time, the likelihood of success is greater than that of failure if you apply your best planning and management efforts. Failure is often a more remote outcome. Simple actions can significantly reduce your chances of failure, making it less of a threat.
  2. Recall past experiences where positive outcomes occurred in situations where failure was possible. A track record of positive results is not an accident. You devised plans and allocated resources that set you up for success. Sometimes, a fear of failure leads you to believe that doom is a random, come-out-of-nowhere strike of fate. In most cases, however, several unfortunate missteps must occur to generate a bona fide failure. Even if this sequence is initiated, you can adjust to counter it. In other words, failure rarely strikes out of the blue. It’s not that ominous.
  3. Reflect on colleagues’ experiences. Even when failure hit them, did it do them in? Not likely. They kept going, adjusting, learning, growing and getting better at their jobs. They may have experienced a dip, but they recovered in the long run—in some cases, actually improving their situations. This is not uncommon.
  4. Focus on the journey instead of fixating on the destination. We usually experience achievement in incremental steps as we plan, adjust, correct and celebrate. Individual steps are easier to grasp and foresee, and failure is less likely as this process plays out. If failure becomes a concern, handle it incrementally, as well.
  5. Set smaller, achievable goals to build confidence and moderate risks. Raise the bar gradually to enhance self-assurance. Emphasize the positive aspects of each step, while correcting or adjusting to minimize the negative aspects. Choose your areas of focus. Before long, you can manage greater opportunities and risks with more courage and confidence.
  6. Ask for help or advice when necessary. You’ll feel more secure when trusted colleagues, mentors or coaches offer input and guidance. They can help reinforce action plans and improve your chances of success. There’s no need to go it alone.

What I see when working with leaders is that coaching conversations help tremendously. Some successful leaders make failure something to be grasped and managed, not feared. You and your organization will enjoy greater success when you learn to master your fear of failure. 

What’s been your experience? I’d love to hear from you. Schedule a free exploratory call here.

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