Fear is a subject most people don’t want to talk about. It’s often seen as a negative and horrifying emotion. The following quotes provide a significantly different view of fear.

• “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt

• “Without fear there cannot be courage.” —Christopher Paolini

• “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” —Joseph Campbell

• “Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

• “Fear is an idea-crippling, experience-crushing, success-stalling inhibitor inflicted only by yourself.” —Stephanie Mellish

• “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but rather the triumph over it.” —Nelson Mandela

Our profession simply doesn’t talk about fear and how it limits our ability to exert leadership. Fear and the courage to face our fears are essential elements of leadership. Fear is also the major cause of the risk aversion that has crippled our profession.

Fear Defined and Identified

Fear is defined as a feeling of alarm caused by an expectation of danger and a state of dread or awe. Fear is a visceral feeling that affects the body: you may experience an upset stomach, sweats or chills, or a racing heart.1

Experiencing fear is completely different from having major concerns. For example, you may be concerned and anxious about a big project, but you might fear failing or making a mistake that you think will forever damage your reputation in the organization. You can be concerned about not having enough resources or time, but you might fear losing control or your credibility in the organization.

There are many common fears like the fear of public speaking, heights, bugs, snakes, and spiders. There are also fears that affect you at work, such as a fear of failure or success, fear of being judged or rejected, fear of losing control, and the fear of being fired.

Unfortunately, we usually don’t know what we are afraid of or we don’t want to admit that we are afraid. Most of our fears are irrational, but they are still our fears. For example, I was a rock climber, but have always been afraid of going on a roller coaster. Some fears are clearly legitimate, like the fear of being chased by a lion or being burned, but these are not the fears that affect our organizational lives and prevent us from being effective leaders.

The Impact of Our Fears

When we experience a fear, our body and our mind automatically go into “fight or flight” mode. These reaction modes have been traced back to our ancestors as they learned how to survive. In the workplace, the fight mode might exhibit itself as:

• Active resistance to an idea or program.

• Getting angry and vociferously arguing.

• Retaliating against someone.

• Defying a rule or order.

• Taking legal action.

In the workplace, the flight mode might exhibit itself as:

• Giving up or quitting.

• Not defending your idea.

• Remaining silent.

• Being risk averse and afraid to take action or make a decision.

Our fight or flight impulses will manipulate our actions in ways that are harmful not only to ourselves, but also to the organization and/or the community we serve.

The Bigger Picture: Fears and Leadership

Everyone has fears. Our fears negatively affect our actions. Fears often cause us to take the wrong action or reduce us to inaction. Both will cause us to be an ineffective leader. If everyone has fears and fears can prevent someone from being an effective leader, then how can effective leaders exist? Leaders have fears like everyone else, but they understand what their fears are and how those fears affect them. Effective leaders have the courage to act in spite of their fears.

Many studies have shown that by acknowledging and confronting our fears, they will become smaller, less daunting, and more manageable. The fear may not go away, but you will be able to take action in spite of the fear. The same studies also show that fears that are not acknowledged or confronted become more powerful and impede us even more.

The Courage to Lead in Spite of Our Fears

Courage is best defined as one’s ability to face fear. You can’t have courage without fear. It takes courage to love someone or be successful or be happy. A wonderful quote about courage from Anais Nin is “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Courageous people lead very large and full lives. Fearful people lead very small lives.

How does one acknowledge and confront one’s fears? Two steps must be taken. First, you must accurately define your fear. This is more difficult than you may think since we tend not to admit our fears or we don’t accurately define them. The second step is to figure out how best to confront your fears. When confronting a fear, ask yourself three questions:

1. What is the worst case if my fear comes true?

2. What is the probability that my worst case will happen?

3. Can I live with the worst case?

Answering the first two questions is almost impossible to do by yourself. We often catastrophize the worst case and misjudge the likelihood that the worst case will happen. These mistakes are driven by the fear itself. To prevent this, involve a couple of friends or colleagues to give you a reality check on both your worst-case scenario and the probability that it will happen.

You then need to answer the last question: Can I live with the worst case? Effective leaders are willing to take the risk and say: Yes, I have the courage to live with the results of my actions.

How Our Fears Create a Risk-Averse Culture

Our profession is dominated by risk aversion both at the staff and council levels. Risk aversion is a flight reaction to fear. The antidote to this malady is courage. Courage is:

• Taking actions that are “scary.”

• Speaking truth to power.

• Experimenting and innovating.

• Doing what is right versus what is easy.

• Speaking up for your beliefs and values.

Courage is the opposite of “go along to get along” or “don’t rock the boat” or “good enough for government work.” Courage demands a bolder response.

Risk-averse cultures usually form over time and can only be dismantled over time. A risk-averse culture heightens employee fears and hence reinforces itself. Effective leaders understand this and are strategic in modeling courage and operating in ways that can change this culture.

The best way to deal with a risk-averse culture is to first acknowledge the reality both at the staff level and at the council level. Once acknowledged, strategic steps can be developed to change the culture. Each organization must figure out the specific steps that are most effective for its culture.

Unless we are willing to admit our fears, we will perpetuate the risk aversion problem within our profession. It is up to each of you to do this and not blame someone else for the risk-averse culture.


List your deepest and most daunting fears as they relate to the work you do and the position you hold. This exercise is difficult to do by yourself. I suggest you involve a couple of colleagues. Ask your colleagues to challenge you to dig deep and make sure you are listing the true fear versus a major concern.


• You might be concerned that you don’t have enough time or resources to take on a project; however, you might fear losing credibility or being rejected if you don’t perform well.

• You might be concerned that people will think badly of you; however, you might fear rejection or “being found out.”

• You might be concerned about not being supported by management or the council; however, you might fear failing or being fired.


• Fears are real and we all have them.

• Fears manipulate our actions in negative ways.

• Leaders have fears like everyone else, but act anyway because they have courage.

• Courage is the ability to confront your fears.

• Acknowledging your fears makes them more manageable. Hiding from your fears makes them more frightening and more destructive to you.

Based on over 35 years in our profession, I have observed too many city managers and top executives unable to effectively lead due to fear. Fear has prevented too many people from becoming effective leaders. It is time to change that by having the courage to face your fears. Let me know if you want help.