Fear, Anxiety & Leadership

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By Bill Auxier, Ph.D.

Have you ever dreamt that you were back in college, the semester was at its end, and you walk into the classroom for the final exam totally unprepared with the realization that you had skipped class all semester?  I have.  For me, that dream progressed to showing up at the office after being absent for a long time, and having to face my boss.  In both dreams, the fear and anxiety, even after waking up was pretty unsettling.  And it was just a dream! I’ve seen leaders faced with fear and the resulting anxiety, particularly when it comes to criticism, decision making and the fear of failure.

Regardless of the cause, fear is a powerful emotion that serves as our defender.  Fear causes a heightened awareness and prepares the body to escape the danger causing that fear.  Fear helps us realize what is about to go wrong and what can be done to escape that outcome.  Without fear, leaders become reckless risk takers.


Feeling the emotion of fear and being unable to identify the source of that fear causes anxiety.  Research has shown that collecting data and information will actually improve performance because data gathering stimulates energy and vigilance.

Decision making is a critical skill for leaders.  Everyone makes good decisions and everyone makes bad decisions.  Effective leaders make more good decisions than bad decisions.  Making good decisions in a highly evolving environment with little information makes it difficult to know in the moment if you are making a good decision or a bad decision, but a decision must be made.  Fear can cause analysis paralysis or worse.  Effective leaders push beyond that fear to work through the decision making process to make the best possible decision with the intent to monitor the results and quickly adjust as needed.

Fear of failure has paralyzed many leaders.  No one likes to fail, yet failure is a great teacher.  Failure comes in many forms: bad decisions, high turnover, missing budget or plan, inconsistency, etc.  But effective leaders realize that failure is inevitable.  Effective leaders embrace failure instead of fearing it, using failure as an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership effectiveness by showing flexibility and adjusting as needed to make things right.

I don’t know of anyone who likes the feeling of anxiety or likes the feeling of fear.  Leaders need not like these feelings but do need to embrace the emotions of anxiety and fear as opportunities to execute more effectively.

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