In the face of continual change and uncertainty in the global economy – not to mention the increasingly myopic focus on short-term gains at the expense of understanding the long-term context – fear in the workplace has become a long-term affliction as evidenced in study after study showing increasing levels of stress paired with falling engagement levels in today’s work environments.
Not surprisingly, such conditions naturally lead to calls for courageous leaders to step forward to help guide us through the storm and back into calmer waters. Unfortunately, when it comes to courage in leadership, we often have a wrong impression of what that means.
When it comes to courageous leadership, the image that often comes to mind is of a leader who is not just assertive in the face of uncertainty, but who also exudes a sense of fearlessness regarding the situation before them. And yet, the reality is that courage in leadership is not about the absence of fear. Rather, it’s about learning to manage one’s fear in order to do the work and make the decisions that need to be made.
Of course, the ability to exhibit courage in our leadership is not something that is limited to a select few that breathe rarefied air. Indeed, each of us have the capacity to be courageous leaders by implementing the following steps:
1. Identify and label negative thoughts that weigh you down
When it comes to managing fear, the first thing we need to recognize is that a key driver behind our fears is derived from our own perceptions and with it, the expectations we consciously or unconsciously create in our minds.
Several neuroscience studies have shown that not only what we focus on has a significant impact on what we accomplish, but that our minds have been socially conditioned to avoid things we don’t want. And we see this reality revealed in the words of our everyday language – in the English language, for example, two-thirds of all the words that describe emotion have a negative connotation.
The good news, though, is that our brains are quite malleable and as such, we are very much capable of ‘learning new tricks’ once we’ve become more aware of this tendency.
So the first thing we need to do to better manage our fears is to identify and label these negative thoughts when they happen. Research has shown that when we’re mindful of such thoughts and label them for what they are, we actually diminish their impact on our perception and mood because we allocate less brain resources on them.
It’s important to note that while it can be easy at times to catch ourselves in negative self-talk, there will be times where such thoughts can seem more like a self-protective measure. The reality, though, is that these thoughts are only serving to fuel our fears about the current situation, thereby limiting our willingness or capacity to address it in an appropriate fashion.
2. Reframe the situation by finding out what’s really going on
Research has shown that our brain operates like a predicting machine – it likes to decipher various bits of information to create patterns in order to anticipate what’s next, something that’s becoming more difficult to do in this increasingly complex and faster-paced global market. Add to this how our own biases and beliefs serve to create the framework within which we interpret a situation and we can see how easy it is to feel disconnected or wrongly assess the realities of a given situation.
That’s why another trait courageous leaders share in managing their fears is that they reframe the situation that’s behind their feelings of apprehension or concern. These leaders don’t simply rely on their own understanding of the situation, but look to put it in another context from the one they’re perceiving.
Courageous leaders accomplish this by getting out from behind their desk and ‘walking the floor’, listening to what their employees have to say, of how they view the challenges before their organization and what insights they can share on how to address them based on their own experiences, creativity, and talents.
Such conversations also allow leaders to discover opportunities where they can lend a helping hand or provide some much-needed guidance and support to help their team succeed in their collective efforts.
3. Seek out opportunities to gain new skills and understandings
One of the core psychological needs we all share is competence – not just in the traditional sense of being able to do our jobs well, but also in the context of being challenged to stretch our existing competencies and grow new ones.
Certainly, the ability to develop and refine new competencies is a necessity in today’s work environment where the skills we use today might lose relevance in favour of another. For leaders, it’s easy in the light of ever-changing conditions to grapple with feelings of uncertainty about their capacity to lead as accomplishments achieved in the past are no longer necessarily indicative of future performance levels.
But this is why it’s important to remember that the leadership role is naturally evolving from the command-and-control style – where answers must come from the top and trickle down the organizational ladder – to a more collaborative one where leaders help their employees to discover the answers.
To do this, leaders need to foster a culture that encourages making time to test, experiment and learn in order to build new competencies and understandings of both current realities and possible future trends.
In this way, courageous leaders are able to manage their fears because they understand that leadership is a never-ending learning process, instead of a fixed destination that you arrive at after serving your time in the trenches.
4. Focus on what’s in your control to manage
The last step we need to take is to let go of those variables for which we have no control over. As easy as this may sound, this is often the biggest hurdle for leaders to overcome, especially if they confuse their authority with being in control.
While there may be continued uncertainty in the global economy, the last thing your team or organization needs from you is bringing additional uncertainty into the mix because your focus is on what you can’t control, instead of on what aspects you do have some measure to address and consequently, where efforts can be made to keep things moving forward.
Courageous leaders understand this well because they recognize that managing their fears is a continual process because they know our fears are not constant. Rather, our fears will naturally ebb and flow in response to the changing conditions we have to deal with.
This in many ways is what makes these leaders courageous – whether they’ve mastered their fears today or not, they know that their fears will once again rear its ugly head in the future and yet, this doesn’t deter them from helping their team and organization to press ahead.
There’s no question that in light of the prevailing uncertainties, turmoil and persistent change, we need courageous leaders who can guide our organizations forward instead of allowing us to simply tread water waiting for better times. However, it’s important to remember that the courage we seek should arise not in the absence of fear, but because we’ve learned how to manage our fears so that we might stay on course to achieving our shared purpose.
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