How to Lead When You’re Feeling Afraid

I’d known Jeff (not his real name) for many years, as a client and as a friend, but I’d never seen him so thrown. I could feel his fear, his sense of uncertainty.

And it was with good reason.

Jeff was the head of sales for a company whose product was, more or less, impossible to sell.

His company, Golden Global (also not its real name), is an active fund manager. Active funds invest in particular stocks that they think will do well, as opposed to passive funds, which track an established index, such as the S&P 500. Today many investors are pulling their money out of active funds and putting it into passive ones. In January 2017 alone, investors withdrew $13.6 billion from active funds and invested $77 billion in passive ones.

It makes sense: In addition to charging dramatically lower fees, passive has outperformed active 92% of the time over the past 15 years. Like the rest of the industry, Golden Global’s fund performance has lagged.

Jeff was facing ridiculous odds even if his only goal was to keep cash from flowing out of Golden Global’s investments. But that wasn’t his goal. His goal was to increase total investment in Golden Global’s strategic products. By $2 billion.

So Jeff and his team were working harder than they ever had before, going to the clients they knew, making a case that had previously worked for their funds, selling their hearts out doing the things that they’d had success with in the past.

But it wasn’t the past.

They were looking for their lost keys in the same pockets they’d checked again and again. Their frenzy of activity was getting them exactly nowhere.

Here’s the dilemma: The only way you can solve an impossible challenge is through innovation and experimentation. But fear blocks innovation and experimentation. Meanwhile Jeff — and his entire team — was terrified. They feared falling short of their goal and losing their bonuses. Ultimately, they feared losing their jobs.

So here’s the question: How can you inspire your team to achieve the impossible when you yourself are feeling afraid and uncertain about how — and whether — you can achieve it?

When Jeff and I first spoke, he thought he had a sales problem. But that wasn’t quite right. What Jeff really had was a leadership problem. He needed to inspire people to loosen up, try new things, experiment. He needed to get people thinking out of the box at the precise moment that they were huddling together in a small corner of it.

How do you get out of this conundrum?

Build Emotional Courage

Your first step is to build your emotional courage — your ability to act thoughtfully, strategically, and powerfully while feeling afraid.

Why not just overcome your fear? That’s what most people try to do (and what many coaches and therapists try to help people do), but it’s a huge mistake.

In our conversations, Jeff called himself a coward, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Jeff wasn’t a coward. He was a normal person in a scary situation. Actually, he was an incredibly brave person in a scary situation. In other words, Jeff’s fear was appropriate. So, not feeling the fear was not a smart, or realistic, option.

But he was overwhelmed by his fear, and it was driving him to push his people in a way that kept them smaller, taking fewer risks, and staying stuck. Which is why emotional courage is so critical.

Jeff and I spent some time increasing his capacity to feel the fear without losing himself in it. I asked him where in his body he felt it. What did it feel like? Did it move? He felt it as a knot in his stomach, as a constriction in his throat, as a pain in his heart. We stayed with those feelings and watched them shift, move, lighten. He learned the critical skill of feeling the fear without becoming it.

At which point he could feel scared without acting scared. He wasn’t ignoring his fear — he still felt scared — but it didn’t control him. That was a critical move toward showing up as an inspirational leader.

Focus on the Process

We’re often told (including by me) that we should focus on the outcomes we want to achieve (for example, driving to a sales target). And we should. Usually.

But when we’re scared or intimidated or pursuing something so big that we don’t even really know where to begin, we need to focus on the process that will get to the outcome. A good process will guide you along the path to get you where you want to go, and you can follow a good process no matter what you’re feeling.

The next thing we did was shift Jeff’s mindset from sell more to sell differently. Small change, massive shift.

“Sell more” is outcome-focused, while “sell differently” is process-focused. It answers the question: What should I do, day in, day out, that will get me to that outcome?

“Sell differently” was precisely the prompt that he and his people needed in order to redirect their energy from working harder to working more strategically.

Communicate Clearly

Once you bolster your emotional courage and target your focus, you need to direct the attention of your team.

Jeff had sent some emails that were meant to inspire but had the opposite effect. He basically kept telling people they needed to step it up, work harder, and be accountable (for example, sell more).

We asked the question: How can he communicate, as a leader, in an environment of fear so that his people are inspired to seek creative solutions to a sticky, impossible problem?

After reading a number of his emails, I wrote out the simplest structure I could think of to redirect the energy of his communication, offering a four-part outline:

  • Vision. People need to have a clear sense of where they are headed. You should articulate the vision so that it’s succinct, simple, palpable, and clear.
  • Empathy. People need to know that you are not out of touch and that you can feel what they are feeling. You do not need to drag this part out — it should be short but connected and heartfelt. This is where you can also own your part in the challenge.
  • Direction. People need to see the path that they can believe will get them to the ultimate objective, the vision. Like the vision, your direction should be succinct, simple, palpable, and clear.
  • Proof. People need a reason to believe they can walk the path, so you should offer proof for your direction and optimism. You should be specific, be personal, and reflect the work that the team is already doing. This will build your team’s confidence.

Here’s one example of how it played out in Jeff’s communication to his team:

“I am excited about what this business could look like when we share ideas and take some risks in selling differently. We do not need investors to put all their money with us — we need them to put a portion of their money with us, and it’s a good idea for them to do it — we are an important part of a well-rounded portfolio and we’re good at what we do.” (Vision)

“We obviously have serious product challenges. The outflows are disheartening. This is a scary time for all of us, and I realize that I have contributed to that in my own communications. I’m sorry for that.” (Empathy)

“Doing things differently is our path to success, and it requires that we take some risks. Our opportunity is in expanding our client base, finding those who see our offerings as solutions to the exposure they have in the broader market, and sharing the compelling story we see. I don’t have all the answers — but I believe in you and, together, we can make it happen.” (Direction)

“There are already a lot of great ideas — and we’ve made tremendous progress — that shows what we can do when we focus on taking risks and changing our approach. Some things I’m hearing include: Alex streamlined non-sales meetings and added one weekly sales meeting to share ideas. Danielle’s team analyzed what had been successful, and it was a very high-touch sales process, which is hard with 200 clients per territory, so they narrowed it to 60. That’s a big, risky change — which is precisely what we need to be doing. And when Michelle sees that a client doesn’t understand the strategy, she shifts to education about the space rather than doubling down on the sale. This is just some of what I’m hearing, and it shows what we can do when we take risks to do things differently.” (Proof)

Once you’ve got the four-part outline down, your job is to repeat it. All the time. Shifting behavior in others requires repetition. You may become bored with it — and you may feel that you’re overdoing it —but use your newly developed emotional courage to feel those feelings and keep repeating yourself anyway.

The result? It’s not over yet. But the changes that Jeff and his team were looking for have started in dramatic ways. Remember their “impossible” goal to increase total investment in Golden Global’s strategic products by $2 billion? When we last spoke, they were already close to $1 billion.

Originally published at Harvard Business School.


  1. Argy kazanis says:

    Reallly appreciate these insights. Emotional courage is talked about one of our key behaviours is being courageous however spelling it out in this example helped me better grasp how. Focusing on the process is an excellent point. My issue is my team is spinning wheels with a certain business unit we can’t get to the delivery objectives.

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