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Three Steps to Fear-Free Leadership

Alison Reid

Fear may be stopping talented senior managers and directors in your organisation from stepping up. As talented individuals take on increased responsibility, there is an expectation that they glide seamlessly to leadership. Contributor Alison Reid,  Leadership Expert.

Yet the level of challenge and exposure can leave them feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable. Fear of being found out and fear of failure can hold them back from speaking up and pushing back, especially at C-suite level.

The real cost of fear is not what you can see, but what you can’t : ideas and opinions left unsaid that could change the course of your organisation. This isn’t good news when CEOs are concerned emerging leaders lack the ability to think strategically and manage change effectively – and consider creativity the most important skill for future leaders.

The role of fear in our evolution has been to keep us safe – and therefore alive. Unfortunately, our perception of what is safe in the modern world is out of proportion with reality. For example, the fear of a hungry tiger has morphed into fear of a volatile boss.

The good news is that we are not hardwired – we can change our habitual response to perceived threats. Through my extensive work with leaders cross-sector, I have developed a 3-step process to help my clients turn around unhelpful, fear-driven behaviours: 1) Awareness, 2) Design, and 3) Practice.

What is particularly important about this process is that it recognises that behavioural change has to involve our whole physiology. We need to become aware of what we say to ourselves – our self-talk – and how we use our body – for example, our posture and how we breathe – as these impact both how we feel and what we say and do.

The first step in the process is to raise awareness of when we are anxious or fearful, what situations trigger these feelings, and how we react in those moments. Given that 40/45% of what we do every day is habitual and therefore unconscious, this is possibly the hardest step.

The next step, which often emerges naturally from the first, is to clarify how we want to show up differently in situations that trigger our anxiety and fear. Do we want to appear, for example, calm? Or forceful? Or confident? What shifts will this require in our inner dialogue and our physiology?

Habitual behavioural patterns are wired into us, and when we are gripped by fear, our body responds the same way it always has done. That means we need to interrupt these behaviours over and over again and replace them with more helpful patterns of thinking and doing. Practising in low-stake situations builds our capacity to respond differently when we’re under pressure.

What can you do in your organisation to support leaders experiencing fear and anxiety?
Assess the quality of line manager support. Are they equipped to create a safe space for employees to voice their hopes and fears? Don’t assume the individual feels safe to talk. Be proactive in creating the opportunity for them to discuss their aspirations and concerns.

Explore what support the individual needs. For example, it may help if their line manager double-hands high-stake  meetings  as  they ease into a senior role. Create facilitated peer groups for leaders to share their experiences in a safe environment and build a support network.

Consider whether to engage a coach to help them explore and change fear-driven behaviours which are limiting their leadership impact. A skilled coach will pick up on behavioural patterns which the individual concerned may be unaware of, crucial to surfacing insight which then paves the way for action. What would be possible if your leaders were to express themselves fully? What could that mean for growth, for innovation, for engagement in your organisation?

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