Debunking Leadership Myths #4 — Fear Matters, But Not That Much

Our last leadership myth focused on our false belief that humans are rational beings. In reality, fear—a survival mechanism passed down to us from our early human ancestors—plays a significant role in our actions and behavior, whether we realize it or not. That brings us to today’s myth: fear matters, but not that much. 

 In fact, fear is the root cause of almost everything we do – particularly as leaders. 

Fortunately, we can overcome our fears and bring ourselves closer to the rational, even-keeled leaders we desire to be. To do that, though, we have to understand exactly what we are afraid of—and the implications of those fears. 

Let’s start with the most predominant fears, or what I call The Big Three: ego, scarcity, and failure. 


How many times have you asked yourself, How do I stack up? You probably do it on a daily basis without even realizing it. Why? Ego serves as our psychological immune system; it is there to protect us and our sense of self. Our ego wraps around our self-image like a security blanket, rationalizing, making excuses, and even blaming others to help us feel whole.  

All that ego-based activity is a lot of work. As such, it’s easy to lose sight of your own goals in the process. You can’t break away from the pack if every move you make is based on keeping pace with it. Instead of encouraging you to take high-potential risks, ego-based fears spur you to avoid taking action—no matter how necessary or urgent—that may affect your status or position in others’ eyes. 


We’re also well acquainted with scarcity-driven fears. Scarcity is the notion that there’s never enough. Money is often the source of these fears—and few, if any, are immune. 

Many of us only have to think back to our parents’ behaviors to spot the origins of our money-based beliefs. And at no point during our education—formal or informal—are those lessons countered or behaviorally deconditioned. As a result, many of us become adults who cannot comfortably talk about and engage with money.  

The values with which we were raised—along with our current socioeconomic status—also shape our individual conception of what constitutes a lot of money. If spending $2,000 on a state-of-the-art television for your home seems significant, your “$2,000 is a lot of money” conditioning doesn’t just disappear when you lead a company with a multimillion-dollar P&L, to your detriment as a leader. 

Another scarcity-based concept is Fear of Missing Out—colloquially known as “FOMO.” Here’s just one instance of the impact on leadership: It has been well established that the most effective business strategies are narrow and deep, rather than wide and shallow. FOMO leads people to choose the latter. For example, a CEO operating from fear of scarcity may be unwilling to define a precise business strategy because she worries that she’ll miss out on opportunities that fall just to the left or to the right of her path. Unfortunately, scarcity driven choices like that can be fatal. 


That brings us to our final concern in the big three: failure. Here we’re talking about something bigger than a lackluster product launch, a bad hire, or even a bad year—we’ve all been through setbacks like these. Here, we’re talking about the existential fear of failure—failure to provide for your family, to accomplish your overarching goals, to take risks and reap the benefits. 

What’s the impact of failure-based fear? Making fewer big decisions. Avoiding significant commitments. Upholding the status quo. Unfortunately, that means you may very well end up sidestepping the moves that could make you truly great. 

But that’s not all. An unwillingness to decide or commit means your focus will be too broad—you’re just too afraid to cull extraneous activities for fear that you need a plan B, C, or D. As a result, you can’t be as efficient or competitive as you need to be, which ultimately translates to a less-than-stellar bottom line. 

Ego, scarcity, and failure directly limit your potential as a leader, as an entrepreneur, and as a human being—each in its own way. 

Ego: If you’re constantly comparing yourself to others, how can you ever be free?

Scarcity: Fearing scarcity is a self-fulfilling prophecy—If you worry about how much you have regardless of how much you get, when can you ever have enough? 

Failure: Fear of existential failure follows the same set of considerations: If you’re consumed with avoiding it, how can you possibly take the right risks and make meaningful progress toward creating the legacy you desire?

There is hope, however. You can diagnose these fears in yourself—the first step in staging a successful intervention. Check yourself for these five general symptoms associated with fear-based decision-making:

A focus on loss rather than realizing gains: How do you know if your decisions are fear-driven? Determine if they’re about avoidance rather than pursuit. If your greatest priorities are stopping customer complaints or preventing shipment delays, rather than reaching growth targets, for example, fear is the culprit. 

Procrastination: Anytime you delay a decision, no matter how logical your reasons for doing so, fear is operating somewhere, somehow behind the scenes.

The flip-flop: You’re swayed easily by what others say, by the headlines, or by any number of other factors. Fear fosters a tendency to question, doubt, and change your mind rather than stay the course. 

Unreasonable continued sacrifice: You choose to give up potentially good things in order to maintain what you have, even if there are significant downsides. I see the classic example of this all the time: a willingness to retain toxic, yet reasonably performing employees. It’s bird-in-the-hand thinking . . . except the bird is pecking at your face.

In your gut, you know you’re doing the wrong thing: This is one of the clearest signs of fear. But unlike the other symptoms, which are more visible externally, this one is internal. Those I coach often verbalize their internal conflict: They “know” they need to fire a client, but . . . They “know” they need to change their banking relationship, but . . . Though they can justify their actions (or lack thereof), their gut feeling is a strong indicator that those actions are fear-induced.

 OK – you’re human. You have at least one of the symptoms. So you’re naturally wondering, “what can I do about this?” 

 You’re now ready to employ Activator #1: Reduce Fear. 

 Check out my previous leadership myth article for techniques to interrupt fear-based decision-making. Then, put the fear-reduction tool (free writable PDF) from my book Activators – A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done to work.

Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

The 7 C’s of Change Management: Making Change Easier with Neuroscience

Change is rarely easy, especially when a habit has been formed. Just think about how difficult, stressful, and even annoying it can be when someone asks to change your morning routine or you are forced to change it. That is just one person.

So imagine the challenges of trying to implement a change management process in an organization, where all people have different responses to change and ways of coping with it.

In a survey conducted  by Towers Watson, researchers found that while 55% of employers felt that change was initially successful, only 25% felt that the changes were long lasting. Other researchers found that 83% of CEOs believe change is their biggest challenge, while 28% of CEOs were fired because of ineffective change management.

Five Ways Smart People Sabotage Their Success

Mark was always one of the smartest kids in his class. He’s done well in his career, but when he checks Facebook, he sees people he outperformed at school who have now achieved more. Likewise, there are colleagues at his firm who have leapfrogged him. Sometimes he wonders, “What am I doing wrong?”

Sound familiar? You might relate to Mark yourself, or have an employee or loved one who struggles with similar feelings. Raw intelligence is undoubtedly a huge asset, but it isn’t everything. And sometimes, when intellectually gifted people don’t achieve as much as they’d like to, it’s because they’re subtly undermining themselves. If you’re in this situation, the good news is that when you understand these foibles you can turn them around.

Hiring Isn’t Rocket Science: Why the Most Boring Strategy is Best

A lot of ink has been spilled and consultant hours racked up talking about the ins and outs of hiring heuristics. What deeply nuanced psychological traits should we be looking for? What tactics can you use to see them? What’s the one surprising trick that will help you identify the exceptional among the average?

The truth is, the best way to hire isn’t outrageous, groundbreaking, or clickbaity. It’s incredibly structured and boring. And that’s why no one does it.

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