Fear!  We think of fear as something we shouldn’t feel, or something we need to overcome.  However, healthy fear can be one of the most important tools in your leadership arsenal, and, when properly used, fear can improve planning, unlock creativity, and increase innovation.  Let’s examine what healthy fear looks like and how to use it.

The secrete about fear and courage

Courage isn’t about the absence of fear.  It’s about dealing with fear in productive ways.  Truly courageous leaders don’t avoid their fears; they embrace, examine, and use fear as an important tool.

I recently heard a TED Talk about fear by noted fiction writer Karen Thompson Walker.  She explored the connection between fear and the creative process as it applies to people like writers and other creative artists.  This is a brilliant concept, and I believe it also applies to business leadership—i.e., business leaders have the opportunity to use their fears as a way to unlock possibilities, imagination, and creativity, and to ultimately improve results.

Finding the creativity behind fear

Karen sees our fears as stories we’re able to tell ourselves, and says we can learn to use those stories to unlock imagination.  For business leaders I believe this translates into an opportunity to unlock potential rather than impose limits—i.e., the opportunity to treat that imagination as a way to explore possibilities, create new ideas, evaluate alternatives, and influence outcomes before it’s too late.  I’ll borrow from Karen’s story, but look at it from the standpoint of how a skillful leader can either leverage his or her fear, or be taken hostage by that fear.

Being taken hostage by destructive fear

In 1819, 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile, 20 American sailors watched their ship, the whale ship Essex, flood with seawater and sink after being struck by a sperm whale.  Their choices were to sail for the closest land (the Marquesas Islands 1,200 miles to the west) or sail for South America, 3,000 miles away.  The South America option also required an additional 1,000 miles of sailing to avoid heading into the trade winds, and the group had limited supplies of food and water.  The crew decided to take the longer rout to South America because they feared the Marquesas Islands might be inhabited by cannibals.  Although the men had no specific information on the cannibals, they feared them much more than the very likely risk of running out of food and water during the longer journey.

The men did indeed run out of food and water after facing many trials on the open seas.  By the time the survivors were rescued more than 95 days later, many had died, and the survivors themselves had resorted to cannibalism in order to avoid starvation.  The story of the Essex inspired parts of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and it’s widely believed that all the men would have survived if they’d simply taken the shorter route to the Marquesas—which were, it turns out, not inhabited by cannibals.

What can business leaders learn from the Essex?  The men’s fears were focused on two stories—one about running out of food and water, and the other about facing cannibals.  The story about cannibals was much more vivid, so it took priority, even though it lacked the factual support of the more likely story about running out of food.  The captain had originally wanted to take the shorter route, but ultimately acquiesced to his crew’s fears and agreed to avoid the imagined cannibals.  The captain allowed himself to be taken hostage by his crew’s fears, and was unable to meet the responsibilities of a leader—to imagine more possibilities, look at alternatives, and lead his team through their fears.  And as often happens, the fears became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the men became the very thing they were most afraid of.

How to find the creativity in fear and avoid the pitfalls

When faced with fear try the following steps:

  1. Name the fear—This is perhaps the most critical step in managing fear.  Be very clear about what the fear is, and paint the scenarios that you believe could happen.
  2. Get others to name their fears—As leaders, we also need to help our followers manage their fears.  Get your team to articulate and clarify their fears.
  3. Engage your creativity—After the fears are named, the creativity can start. Look at the full story your imagination tells you about the fears and flesh out the full stories. Ask yourself how likely each scenario is, and understand which stories are the most important.  Before acting, use your full imagination to look at what the fears may be telling you.  What creative remediation plans can you develop?  What new possibilities or opportunities can your fear give you insight into?