Fear is a survival instinct shared by all living beings. When faced with sudden fear, the body enters a stress state, either to fight or to flee. The late boxing legend Muhammad Ali had a classic expression about fear: “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
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Although people can never eliminate fear entirely, business leaders must enhance their ability to manage fear in order to have more confidence in the future. Human beings have not survived by relying absolutely on trust and security. For business leaders, true entrepreneurial spirit means overcoming the emotions of fear, doing what needs to be done because, in this ever-changing and diverse world, the biggest risk a business leader can take is not taking any risks at all.
01 – Leaders Being the “Smartest Person in the Room” Can Lead to Collective IQ Decline
There are two types of fear: obvious fear, such as being afraid of dogs, which causes a clear sense of psychological tension when a big dog is nearby, and there’s a deeper, less noticeable fear that often affects leaders, known as the fear of the unknown. The fear of the unknown is like the bottom layer of an iceberg, not easily detected but causing significant disruption. For example, a friend recently told me, “I’m in trouble lately.” Why? Because, at the urging of the mayor of a city, he provided a guarantee for a large local company’s associated loan. Shortly thereafter, the company went bankrupt, and he was responsible for a compensation amount of approximately one to two hundred million. He said, “Trouble comes when you least expect it.” If we trace it back, he actually made that decision because he was afraid to offend or refuse the mayor, which resulted from a deep-seated fear.
There’s a model by Weisthoff – the four fears of leaders. When dealing with many issues, we can use this model to observe “why they behave this way.” Behind this behavior, is there an unacknowledged fear controlling them? The first fear is the fear of failure. Some leaders are afraid of failure, so they always want to maintain a successful state and seek even greater success. When controlled by the fear of failure, they may make decisions that avoid taking risks and dislike uncertainty. Real business involves a lot of uncertainty, and not tolerating failure makes it difficult to achieve success.
Another fear is the fear of making mistakes. Some leaders always want to be in the right position, and once they express their opinions, they find it hard to tolerate opposition or challenges to their conclusions from their teams or others. This fear is hard to notice, but we can observe it through a phenomenon: whether the leader’s team has become their “parrot” who admires the leader and agrees with everything they say. If someone manages their team this way, they are a leader who fears making mistakes and does not allow different voices. If everyone in a team says the leader is correct and brilliant, that team lacks imagination and creativity, and its performance will be affected.
When leaders believe they are the “smartest person in the room” and always emphasize their correctness, this behavior can lead to a decrease in the collective intelligence of the room. This phenomenon is real. I conducted an experiment with a friend who is a company boss, and the results surprised me greatly! I have a set of test questions. In open workshops with leaders from various companies who don’t know each other, the average score is around 80. However, when we did the same test within my friend’s company, the boss scored about 83 on average, slightly higher than the overall average, but the average score of the others in the company was around 68. Why did this happen? A dominant boss who always insists on being correct can make everyone more cautious, limiting creativity and imagination.
In fact, such examples are not uncommon in the business world. For instance, the famous “Enron scandal” involved a company embellishing its image until the situation became uncontrollable, ultimately leading to its collapse. Fate often plays tricks on you, and the more you try to conceal, the bigger the cracks become. The same logic applies to the scandal at Hitachi. Recently, a fund manager engaged in insider trading worth billions but maintained a loss, trying to cover the hole but making it larger. For leaders, it often starts with an unacknowledged fear, and when you realize that the “hole” is growing, the fear shifts from being unrecognized to becoming obvious, keeping you up at night. Therefore, fear management needs to be preventive, preventing “small fears” from becoming “big fears.” China’s economy has transitioned from a 40-year period of growth to a new era. If you live in the past glory and are not psychologically prepared for the future, you are more likely to collapse.
02 – Managers Who Aim for Universal Approval Will Always Mess Things Up
Another fear is the fear of rejection. Many people are afraid of rejection; for instance, most professionals find sales to be a painful task because it involves facing a lot of rejection. Sometimes, when we need to ask someone for a favor, we may feel embarrassed. Fear of rejection is also a common mistake that many leaders make. There are typically a few situations: first, when your subordinates are clearly underperforming, but you find it difficult to have a tough conversation with them or make a challenging decision. In the end, you always end up carrying the burden yourself, which makes you exhausted. Another situation is when leaders feel compelled to seek universal approval for any decision they make. They believe that a decision is only valid if it’s unanimously approved, and they constantly wonder if someone isn’t satisfied, which can lead to inner turmoil.
Of course, in management, we need to strike a reasonable balance because business often involves compromise, and the “I get what I want” mentality is not practical. The fear of rejection is different from making reasonable compromises within a certain range. In another perspective, some people have a “people-pleasing personality,” always wanting everyone to be happy, and their boundaries constantly shift, making them uncomfortable in the end. These individuals are typical of fearing both rejection and refusing others. In practice, we often see that people who truly achieve results are “round on the outside and firm on the inside.” They can build good relationships with others while maintaining clear boundaries and a definite bottom line. This type of compromise is appropriate and distinct from pure people-pleasing behavior. When selecting managers, we must not choose those who make “universal approval” their goal because putting such individuals in critical positions will lead to failure.
The fourth fear in the Weisthoff model is the fear of emotional conflicts, always wanting to remain in an emotionally comfortable zone. When someone’s emotions start fluctuating, it can make the individual very uncomfortable and disrupt their sense of calm. Those who fear emotional conflict often miss out on growth opportunities. Some coaches, like Zhang Weijun, consider all conflicts as learning opportunities. When a conflict arises, they never shy away from it but instead “put it on the table” and let the conflict happen. Afterward, they guide everyone to learn from the conflict, focusing on what the conflict has taught them. When there’s no conflict, they find ways to “create” some conflict.
Here’s an example: during a meeting, one participant was considered the “star” of the conference and expressed some views. Another person had a different perspective, but because the first person was the “star,” most people wouldn’t challenge him. However, this second person chose to challenge him actively. Both individuals were strong-willed, and they ended up arguing, making everyone in the room feel very awkward. As the host of the meeting, my typical response would be to defuse the situation, say something like “let’s take a break, set this issue aside for now,” and so on. However, as a Westhoff coach, a fundamental principle is to treat conflict as a learning opportunity. My approach was to let them continue arguing for a while. I said, “You have two more minutes, then we’ll move on to the next part.” Of course, they didn’t argue for the full two minutes. The next part involved them going to separate corners of the meeting room, with their backs turned to everyone else. The rest of the group discussed how they felt about the conflict, how they viewed it, and the two people who had argued became observers. By listening to the group’s discussion, they realized their own shortcomings and learned a lot from this conflict.
03 – The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself
In fact, all fears are like this: when you choose to avoid them, fear will constrain and control you, and it will bully you. When you choose to face it, fear becomes nourishment for learning, and it becomes less frightening. Winston Churchill had a famous quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Fear is a product of evolution. For example, the underlying logic of “fear of failure” is that in primitive times, humans relied on hunting for survival. If you carefully prepared for a hunting expedition and returned with no results, it meant no protein intake for the entire winter, which could lead to starvation. “Fear of making mistakes” is similar; in the process of fighting wild animals, any mistake could result in fatal injuries. “Fear of rejection and conflict” is because humans have always been social animals in the process of evolution. Being accepted by a group is not only a physical comfort but also a matter of life and death. If you were excluded from a tribe and wandered alone in a primitive environment, it was essentially a death sentence. What Li Yu said makes sense. It’s important to maintain a certain level of reverence, which I interpret as risk management for businesses. Additionally, leaders need to master a crucial leadership skill we call “showing vulnerability.” This means being willing to share your shortcomings, fears, and worries with your team. By doing so, you allow your team to take on more responsibility.
When you tell your team that you have fears and worries, it’s a sign of your confidence. Only those lacking confidence will tell everyone “it’s okay” and attempt to hold on, which can lead to problems. Strength and weakness are two sides of the same coin. When you present the strong side to everyone, behind it is actually your weakness. When you’re willing to show your vulnerability to everyone, behind it is actually your strength. As a leader, you must first have this awareness. The more you “show strength” to your team, the weaker your team will become. On the other hand, showing vulnerability will gradually make your team stronger. Each person will be willing to support you and help you address your weaknesses and shortcomings. Such a team will become extremely powerful.
04 – Don’t Pretend, Don’t Resist – “Authenticity” Is the Key to Problem Solving
Dealing with fear is not about trying to “resist pressure.” The real way to manage fear is through honesty—being open and honest without pretending to be strong. When you are straightforward and sincere, you no longer fear fear itself. The more you try to appear strong, the more burden you create for yourself. When you carry this “persona” and “baggage” into your work, your greatest fear becomes that this persona and baggage might crumble, leading to various forms of fear. To be a good leader, you must be honest and avoid pretending or resisting. “Authenticity” is the key to solving problems.
Some minor fears can be overcome through deliberate practice, but sometimes, you may encounter life’s challenges that are hard to overcome, even though others may perceive them as not that severe. This is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. At such times, if you can find a group of knowledgeable, capable coaches, teachers, or friends who are willing to listen to your problems and offer different perspectives and advice, it can provide psychological relief and release. Therefore, having wise mentors and supportive friends is crucial.
In addition to psychological adjustment, I may offer some methods. First, in the four aspects of fearing failure, fearing mistakes, fearing rejection, and fearing emotional conflict, rate yourself. The first step is to understand your fears. Once you have identified the sources of your fears, you can engage in deliberate practice. Create a sentence for yourself, and when these fears interfere with you, bring out that sentence to help you manage them. The first step in managing fear is self-awareness and understanding. After that, everyone can find their own ways to manage it.