7 fears of highly effective leaders

November 1st, 2016

At a recent clergy retreat I led, the conversation went in an unexpected direction. Our focus was on “Leadership Smarts.” But instead of looking at, say, the top 10 things that could make you a better leader, we took a long hard look at the fears that get in our way of leading.

There was a good bit of embarrassment at first, even shame, as people began naming their fears. It’s not easy voicing long-hidden vulnerabilities in front of your peers. Not to mention the people charged with making your next appointment. I have to hand it to them — these folks were brave.

As the exercise continued, though, a funny thing happened. Wry smiles crept across faces. Bits of laughter could be heard. A kind of relief washed across the room. Eventually, the whole room lightened. A deep sense of connection pervaded the gathering. Why? The same kinds of fears were being voiced, over and over again. As it turns out, each person’s fears were harbored secretly but shared widely.

What they revealed were the seven fears of highly effective leaders.

Fears: everybody’s got ‘em. But hardly anyone wants to admit ‘em. We’re afraid they make us look weak, ineffective, stupid. Right? So who wouldn’t want to avoid feeling that way? No one. That’s why we avoid even talking about them.

But fears have a hidden value, a secret positive power. Tapping into them is what makes a good leader into an exceptional leader. In this article, I want to share with you the 7 fears of highly effective leaders. And how you can maximize their positive impact.

Here they are:

  1. Fear of being found out, of being seen as an imposter. 
  2. Fear of making the hard decisions. 
  3. Fear of not living up to their calling, of not getting things done. 
  4. Fear of making people mad. 
  5. Fear of getting it wrong. 
  6. Fear of chaos or conflict. 
  7. Fear of being rejected. 

We now know that the brain is hardwired for fear. There’s no getting around it. As one psychologist has noted, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

But brain science and the life of faith concur: Fear undermines our ability to think logically, act faithfully, and to walk boldly into an uncertain future.

So what’s the secret, positive power of fear? When it comes to leadership, our fears are the basis of self-limiting beliefs. Those self-limiting beliefs are what limit the scope and effectiveness of the church. Not societal changes. Not the aging demographics of our congregations. Not people’s ability or inability to give. Not changing neighborhoods. Even potential schism in the church. Sure, those factors may compound our troubles. But they’re not the cause of them.

What’s at issue is the way those fears shape our self-understanding. Vicki, a strong and vibrant leader told us: “I always try to hold back; I’m told that I suck all the air out of the room.” What may have once been true, or true in a moment, was taken as forever true. It became her self-limiting belief. In truth, her verve and willingness to broach tough topics mean that productive conversations could get started. When she didn’t speak up, the absence of her voice deadened the room.

Have you noticed this in yourself? What someone once said to us as a child is seen as forever and always as true. What once didn’t work out or pay off becomes a doorway through which we can never walk again. When we’re in the grip of fearful, self-limiting beliefs, we pinch off faith, and shut down courageous action.

The truth is, if we can’t name our fears, we’re unlikely to allow other people to name theirs. And we will be unable to give them the space to deal with and transcend them. Leading adaptive, sustainable change means encountering and confronting fears. That requires growing in our faith and trust.

One year the church I served launched worship in the park. It was a big success. It got so big that several supporters said, let’s partner with other local churches to do this. I had a hidden fear: loss of power and authority. I said no. Meanwhile I was teaching them to be open to possibility, but I myself was not. Or I was as long as I still got to be in charge. They were willing to do more than I was, but I didn’t give them the go-ahead to do so.

I don’t think that was a make-or-break decision. But it was one of many over the years that limited the church’s trajectory. Now instead of it being a healthy going concern, like many others it has shrunk in size and influence.

If you have any of the seven fears of highly effective leaders, you’re in good company. If you’re ready to transcend them, you’re in the company of greatness. Here’s how to go about it:

  • Name your fears out loud. 
  • Share them with trusted companions. 
  • Spend time imagining what your life would be like without your fears.
  • Declare your willingness to live without them, and to live into the new life you have imagined. 
  • Watch them diminish or disappear. 

Fear, unchecked, cripples leaders, hobbles vision and masks demons. Releasing them is the secret power that sets leaders free to truly lead.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com. She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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