Fear. “It takes me to my knees,” said a recent client. No one is immune.
Case in point: I’ve started this article 18 different ways. Why? For the longest time, I’ve felt called to write, and I've struggled to write. The greater the struggle, the greater the fear — and the greater the fear, the more whatever is sparking it matters.
Yet for much of my life, fear was the enemy. Fear was weakness. Fear was cowardly. Fear meant being someone who wasn’t strong enough, confident enough, or capable enough to overcome it. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to be that person. I was going to exemplify fearlessness.
So I ignored my fear, denied it, avoided it — and ironically was controlled by it, more than I ever want to admit.
To Lead Strategically Is to Lead Through Uncertainty
My work and purpose are to inspire bold, strategic leadership — in myself and others — that transforms the world for good. To lead strategically is to lead through uncertainty, which can be scary. Sure, there are valuable analytics and guides that support the creation of a robust strategy, but at the end of the day, our job is to envision and create an unknowable future.
Too often, leaders limit themselves to incremental strategies, playing by the rules of an already created game. They feel safe in their recommendations. They feel safe because the ideas aren’t provocative or controversial. They look more like implementing best practices or catching up with the idea of a competitor. They are known and familiar. There’s little to no uncertainty here!
But disruptive and transformational strategies aren’t meant to feel safe. The bold leadership required to achieve that kind of change demands that we face the unsettling fear that comes with it.
Let’s consider the example of my client Sam. Fear nearly stopped him in his tracks. There he was, in a room full of executives with the power to influence the trajectory of his career, engaging in a broad, open discussion about an emerging competitive threat. He was junior by title relative to most. He had a provocative perspective. Different from what was being discussed. He felt like he would be “out on a limb” if he shared it. It was risky.
There were likely many questions running through his head:
- Was it his place?
- What if he was wrong?
- What if he was dismissed, discredited, labeled, and excluded from some future opportunities?
While he believed in his idea, there was no way to know for sure that he was right. He couldn’t prove his way into the future. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt began to flood his system.
So, how could he effectively lead through the uncertainty and be the strategic leader he aspired to be?
How to Lead Through Uncertainty
Sam needed to befriend his fear, not deny it or ignore it. It’s not the presence or absence of fear that matters, it’s who is in the driver’s seat.
Like a child, fear doesn’t belong behind the steering wheel. Poignantly, the more we ignore or deny our fear, the more likely fear will “have us.” We are in its clutches. Consumed by it. In this state, our reactive self is at the forefront, doing everything it can to survive some sense of threat.
But what if we got to choose who is in the driver’s seat? What if we responded to our fear, deliberately and resourcefully, instead of reacting to it? What if we listened to our fear and let it guide us, instead of denying it and being limited by its presence?
Consider this: We can have fear without fear having us.
The minute we welcome fear as our friend and accept its gifts and wisdom is the minute we can choose to be led by our most resourceful self. What wisdom does fear bring? Fear can provide clarity of purpose by signaling what matters to us. Ironically, modern‑day fear — which rarely is prompted by a genuine physical threat — is often a signpost for “head this way.” Despite the risk, despite the fight‑or‑flight response it provokes. Fear creates the opportunity for courage. For conscious, intentional choice to move toward what matters most… and what our biology can cause us to avoid.
Know Your Fear… and Your Reactive Self
The first place to start is to know your fear. Recognize it in your body and behaviors and see it for what it is. Overconfidence, bravado, denial, avoidance, lack of confidence… all are flavors of fear and insecurity.
Our reactive self has a broad range of expressions that can be more or less visible to others. They all boil down to basic survival modes: fight, flight, freeze (or appease). Reflect on what behaviors start to show up when you are feeling stressed, anxious, doubtful. Do you become more rigid or vague in your positions? Do you tend to withdraw from others or overconnect? Put more simply: what starts to happen in your body?
For me, my jaw clenches and my stomach tightens. My fair skin flushes red — no poker face here! My behaviors vary by the situation.
- In some instances, I become quiet, vague, withdrawn, and avoidant. My strategic strength to conceptualize becomes a weakness as I abstract and distance, sacrificing connection.
- In other situations, I become a fighter. I’m rigid, impatient, judgmental, and righteous. Control usually surfaces for me. I over‑think, over‑plan, over‑prepare… you get the gist.
Eeek. It’s tough to own all of that, right? All of these behaviors are part of my “reactive self.” They are the sides of me that show up when fear has me in its grip. But they aren’t who I am. They don’t define me unless I let them. We are what we practice, and these sure as heck aren’t the behaviors I want to be regularly practicing. As one client read her feedback report, she said “This isn’t me. This isn’t what I value.” She’d just met her reactive self.
Moving from Reactive to Resourceful
As painful as it can be to accept our reactive self, it is only then that we get to choose a different way of being and leading:
- A more resourceful version
- A version that sees options and possibilities
- A version that remembers we are all on the same team, working for the same company, advancing the same driving purpose
- A version that is confident, curious, collaborative, receptive, trusting, and at ease
- A version that sees fear as guidance
When we switch from our reactive self to our resourceful self, so much more becomes possible — individually, collectively, and for the futures we envision and create. There are many paths to our resourceful self, but the common denominators are awareness, patience, and dedicated practice.
Practice when the stakes are low. Practice frequently and consistently. Then, when the stakes are higher and old habits and reactions are more likely to emerge, we can readily shift to our most resilient, creative, resourceful self. This emotional self‑control and ability to manage our reactivity is at the heart of emotional intelligence and highly effective leadership. It is the ability to “have emotions without our emotions having us.”
For me, the fastest path to my resourceful self is through the body. It can be as simple as bringing my attention to my breath and the sensations in my body that only exist in the present moment.
First, I feel what the fear is and name it: the clenched jaw, the jittery leg, the fearful thoughts. I love the phrase, “What we can name, we can tame; and what we resist, persists.”
Next, I shift my attention to my feet and their connection to the ground, to the length of the spine, to my shoulders dropping, to something that makes me smile.
The goal of this practice is to become centered in a neutral state of full presence and to access our most resourceful self. From this centered state, regardless of what is going on around you, you can be at choice with your response.
Try this next time you feel seized by fear and insecurity:
- Ground your feet on the floor.
- Bring your attention to your breath.
- Center yourself in your many gifts and talents.
For Sam, accessing his resourceful self allowed him to take risks and leap into the uncertainty of leading strategically. He shared his provocative ideas and influenced the collective thinking. Rather than becoming rigid or passive — “violent or silent,” as one client said — he was assertive AND open, receptive, and curious about other perspectives. He recognized that the world is just too complex for any one of us to see it all. His perspective was needed as much as anyone else’s. And collectively, the group co‑created new options and possibilities — more than any of them could have conceived on their own.
As for me, well, this article exists. And I’m on to the next, and the next after that too. The uncertain future awaits no matter how we feel about it. As for you, are you ready to take the leap? Are you ready to befriend fear and see what becomes possible as you shape and create that unknowable future?