Practice Fear Management to Become a More Masterful Leader

Not only did I grow up with an intense fear of barking Chihuahuas, but I’ve always had an intense fear of heights. Maybe it stems from the time my best friend Brenda taunted me with, “you’re a big chicken!” until I jumped off the jungle gym and landed face-first on a rock. Or the time I jumped off a large model ship in kindergarten and broke six bones in my foot.

Unfortunately, my fear of heights has stopped me from fully enjoying many wonderful travel experiences.

Years ago, I was standing on the Eiffel Tower, only able to keep my back plastered to the mesh wall, struggling to wrench myself to the edge to see the amazing view of the buildings, gardens, and boulevards of Paris. I finally forced myself to move to the edge (Just Do It) for a few moments, but my ability to feel the full joy of all that beauty was blocked by the copious amounts of cortisol coursing through my veins. I vowed then and there to practice not being irrationally afraid of heights.

My fear of heights mirrored my leadership fear of doing presentations for Executive Leadership Team Meetings. 

However, once I learned to practice fear management and used strategies to manage my fears, I was able to be a more assertive, decisive, and proactive leader.

In our previous blog, Top 8 Ways for Leaders to Overcome Fear, we gave you strategies and tactics for managing fear.

You can practice these fear management strategies in any situation (in your work or personal life) and then apply what you learn to your leadership approach. This will impact your thinking, behavior, and actions when you are fearful in a leadership situation.

5 Steps to Practice Overcoming Your Fears

Here are steps to practice fear management using one or more of our “8 Ways for Leaders to Overcome Fear:”

  1. Identify the Fear.
  2. Select a fear management strategy.
  3. Decide where and when you’re going to practice the strategy.
  4. Review the fear management strategy prior to engaging in the situation.
  5. Evaluate and apply what you’ve learned about fear and your response to it.

I’m going to share one of my own examples when I employed one of our fear management strategies on a vacation and then applied it to my work.

1. Identify the Fear

“If you are too careful, you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something.” —Gertrude Stein

In 2008, on a trip to Costa Rica, I decided a Zip Line Canopy Tour would be a great place for me to practice managing my fear.

Boy was I right!!!

Before the tour, I identified the fear(s) that I had created in my mind around zip lining: fear of being in high places, fear of injury, and fear of failure.

2. Select a Fear Management Strategy

Here are our Top 8 Ways for Leaders to Overcome Fear.  I selected my fear management strategy from this list:

  1. Practice facing fears
  2. Use your senses to focus outside yourself
  3. Focus on the other people in the situation, not on how you’re feeling
  4. Change the “story” you tell yourself about the fear
  5. Overcome your limiting beliefs
  6. Focus on the reward you gain when you overcome the fear
  7. Force yourself to do it, or as Nike says: “Just Do It”
  8. Remind yourself that fear can be fun!

For my main fear management strategy, I chose “Seeing Fear as Fun!” This was a good match for the situation because most people who zip line are doing it for fun. If they could see it as purely fun, then I could too. I used strategies 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8 in my fear management approach as well.

3. Decide How and When to Practice Your Fear Management Strategy

I had already chosen when I was going to practice the fear management strategy (while ziplining).

e “how” I was going to practice it boiled down to four tactics:

  • Prior to the tour, visualize zip lining as fun.
  • Smile during the tour (smiling releases endorphins).
  • Take deep breaths to slow my pulse (which releases dopamine and endorphins, and stimulates the vagus nerve to lower your heart rate).
  • See the physical sensations I might experience during zip lining as excitement, not fear.

4. Review the Fear Management Strategy Prior to the Engaging in the Situation

The morning of the zip-lining tour, I reviewed the tactics I had identified to support my chosen strategy of “reminding myself that fear is fun.” I visualized the zip-lining process from start to finish and pictured where I would use each tactic. Then I visualized it again, focusing on where to connect to the fun.

Fear Management Strategy: Remind Yourself that Fear is Fun

I admit it, being strapped to a thin cord tethered to a long wire, for the purpose of flying through the air, 30 feet above the jungle was challenging.

But I smiled at everyone I encountered and took deep breaths.

I managed to climb up the tree to get to the takeoff platform, but when I got to the top, it was higher than I thought it would be. So, I reflexively wrapped my arms and legs around the tree supporting the platform. I didn’t want to move. I literally thought, “I could just live here forever clinging to this tree. That way I won’t risk falling. Unfortunately, the nights would be cold and I’d miss my husband.”

The tour guide didn’t look happy, “we’ve got another one!”

I took 5 Deep Breaths, smiled at him, looked at the beautiful trees and deep blue sky, let go of the tree, and moved into place.

He unstrapped me from the tree and strapped me to the zip line. After a few false starts and glares from the guide, I managed to jump off the platform. Soaring high above the forest canopy, my brain screamed:

“Why did I leave a perfectly good platform!!! Will the cable hold? Am I going to collide with that tree???”

My pulse raced, I tried to breathe deeply but panted instead, the scenery raced by so I tried to look deeper into the forest and focused on one tree, a little calm washed over me. I could smell the mix of perfumed flowers, banana leaves, and damp soil. More calm washed over me.

I reminded myself: “Fear is fun. I’m just excited!”

For a few minutes, I did feel excited.

Then the fear crept back in!

I hit the platform at the other end, the guide steadied me, unclipped me from the zip line, and clipped me to the tree. Once again, I reflexively wrapped my arms and legs around the tree. My brain raced, “Wow, it’s a long way down there.” My hands were clammy and shaking, and my mouth got so dry that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth! Our tour mates were amused by my dilemma.

“OK, I didn’t do a perfect job of managing my fear that time. But I made some progress and the purpose here is to practice and learn.

So, let’s try again. Remember, fear is fun, smile, deep breaths, focus on your senses.”

Then it was my turn to jump again.

This time I thought “Hey, I’m flying through the jungle, it’s a little scary, but is fun. I feel free and alive. Who’d have thought: Fear could be fun!?! But, yes, I’m having fun. I see the fun in the fear.”

I chanted: “Fear is fun, fear is fun, fear is fun!” I felt the wind on my face, heard the birds calling, and saw the beautiful trees.

I kept having fun on the third and fourth zip line runs as well.

5. Evaluate and Apply What You’ve Learned About Fear and Your Response to It

So how did I apply these lessons to my leadership approach?

The next time my boss wanted me to do a presentation for the Executive team, I agreed.

I used the following fear management strategies and tactics:

  • Spent time beforehand visualizing the presentation as being fun
  • Talked to some colleagues about my fears and how to overcome them
  • Smiled as the participants entered the room and smiled at the beginning of my presentation (I put a happy face at the top of my notes)
  • Took 5 deep breaths
  • Grounded myself, using my senses to become more present
  • Looked for the fun in doing the presentation
  • Interpreted the sensations in my body as excitement

And you know what? Practicing using the fear management strategies really helped.

My tongue didn’t stick to the roof of my mouth, my hands didn’t shake or get clammy, and I had fun!

Be the Leader you’ve always wanted to be!

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With Our Consultations Coach: Vicki Rich, MBA, ACC (BIO)
With Our Consultations Coach: Vicki Rich, MBA, ACC