Using Fear to Your Advantage in Leadership

By Larry JacobsonLarry Jacobson

There you are, standing at the helm of your sailboat in the midst of the worst storm of your life. You hold tight to the wheel as the boat flies off the top of a 30-foot wave. The noise sounds like a wounded animal as it howls through the rigging. All you really want to do is go down below, crawl into a bunk, pull the covers up over your eyes and wish it all away.

But then you look at your crew and see them looking at you with eyes as wide as saucers with fear, and you’re jolted back to reality: you’re the captain, the leader. Fear is contagious, and the last thing you need is a team frozen with fear. You need people who are inspired and motivated.

Does this sound like the last time you gave a presentation to your sales force? What are you afraid of in your daily business life? Making a sales call to a particularly tough prospect? Having an all-important conversation with someone you work with? Starting your own company?

What if you could do these things with new heightened senses? Imagine how those looking to you for leadership will see your prowess.

When you’re afraid, whether at sea or standing in front of your co-workers leading them to the next corporate challenge, you have three choices:

  • Ignore your fears and hope they go away. In fact they don’t go away, but often come back stronger than before because you haven’t dealt with them. You must address your fears in your personal or business life or they will gnaw away at you until you do something about them. 

  • Face your fears and stand up to them—stare them down and struggle as to who will win. You can try that in 30-foot seas in the middle of a storm, but fear will quite possibly win. How many times have you sat in the lobby of a prospect waiting for your chance to give your presentation? Did your fears go away just because you wanted them to? No, because you have to do more than face your fears. 

  • Use fear to your advantage. Embrace your fears. First you must recognize the fear. Don’t deny it. Know you’re afraid. You know what it feels like—that “on your toes” feeling, adrenalin pumping, palms sweating, heartbeat increasing… It’s at this point you must stop and have a little chat with yourself. You have to decide who is going to win here: Fear or you. Then comes the hard part: accepting the fear, letting it in and embracing it.

Why should you embrace fear? Fear is nature’s way of making you focus on the task at hand. It sharpens your senses and makes you more alert. And it makes you aware of what could happen next. In the case of this storm at sea, you are indeed focused on how you’re going to get out of this safely. The heightened senses you experience from fear is what many adventurers have learned the hard way. Imagine if you could go through a storm, a sales presentation or a speech to your company with:

  • More focus

  • Sharpened senses

  • More Alertness

  • More Awareness

By embracing your fears, you are given these heightened skills and senses as a gift. Who wouldn’t want their mind more focused when giving a sales presentation? When you recognize and accept the fear, rather than try to overcome it, consciously remind yourself of your newly elevated senses. Tell yourself, “Yes, I’m afraid, but I know it’s making me sharper so I’m going to do a better job at leading this meeting.” Once you’ve done this consciously a few times, the process will happen by itself. Your brain will become accustomed to channeling the fear into success.

Leaders don’t let fear guide their decisions but rather, they guide the fear. To use fear to your advantage, you must embrace it and know it’s there with you. It’s like that little red devil sitting on your shoulder He’s along for the ride but you no longer give him any say or any control. You have transferred its power to you. You are more focused, your senses are sharpened, and you are more alert and aware. You no longer have to pay fear the time of day.

There has never been a more fearless man in modern history than General George S. Patton who said, “There is a time to take counsel of your fears, and there is a time to never listen to any fear.”

We are all afraid of something. The question is what we do about it. Don’t be afraid to embrace your fears. Don’t listen to the wind as it howls through the rigging. Grab hold of the skills fear can provide to you; get behind the wheel and start steering.

Larry Jacobson is a speaker, executive coach and author of the award-winning best seller, “The Boy Behind the Gate,” based on his experiences while achieving his lifelong goal of circumnavigating the globe by sailboat. As a speaker on sales skills and leadership development, Larry uses the six years of lessons learned at sea to speak with unique authority about conquering fear and staying the course whatever it takes. For more information please visit www.larryjacobson.com, email Larry at larry@larryjacobson.com or call 510-500-4566.