Fear in the C-Suite: How To Quell Fears of Failure Within a Superhero Culture

by Elyse Jarard

The fear that grips so many CEOs, entrepreneurs, executives and high-achievers is the fear of being found out (a subset of all three in some way). I call it the fear of being “outted” (FOBO). This fear, at its root, is about being “found out” that we are human. We all have insecurities and weaknesses; however, our society has created a paradigm of success and leadership as an illusion of super humanness. There is no room for failure, struggle, and especially vulnerability. This paradigm is literally killing our brightest, most sensitive minds. Two, who come to my mind are Sergio Marchionne, the CEO and Founder of Fiat, and Kate Spade, a fashion designer and mother. Although they died differently, the fear of being “outted” I believe ultimately caused their deaths.

What are you hiding? Fears of being outted are real, especially among CEOs and top-ranked leaders. Shirzad Chamine, a researcher at Stanford University, interviewed 100 CEOs and organizational presidents (watch the Tedx Talk here). He asked them to anonymously write down one “secret they have never shared about how they really feel inside.” Fear of being found out about some perceived flaw was the most prevalent “secret” they had. Another study, reported in the Harvard Business Review, found that a leader’s number one fear was being thought of as “being incompetent,” with “underachieving,” “appearing vulnerable” and “appearing foolish” all falling in line behind it.

More importantly, these fears were also reported to have an adverse ripple effect on the behavior of the teams, as well as their bottom lines. Teams whose behaviors were lead by fear focused on survival rather than growth. This is no surprise because fear literally puts our brains into survival mode. When our brain is in that mode, we can’t even consider growth.

Even the epic super heroes of comic books and movies have this insecurity. Superman has kryptonite. Spiderman is just an average guy with some weird spider-like powers (but still human). They are always hiding behind something.

The facade of being a superhero in any company only goes so far. Employees, vendors, clients know when something is up. It’s like an animal instinct. I call it a “vibe.” Over time, this affects the level of trust and culture of an organization. On top of that, it will eat away at those in charge and catch up with them physically. We all probably know people (yourself, even?) who are in this situation right now.

These fears are not unique to the C-Suite. They are commonplace in everyone. However, we don’t need to be plagued with fear. I’m not naïve enough to propose that anyone can snap their fingers and mitigate intense feelings like fear. However, I am suggesting that by doing a few simple self-awareness exercises we can create an opportunity to acknowledge what is really behind the fear. Fear disguises itself as an assumptive “story” we have been taught about people, work, success, time, and health. These preconceived ideas cloud our judgment, which expresses physically as the emotion of fear.

3 Steps to Transform Fear

Fear is reactionary. The trick is to transform fear into something positive and proactive. Here are three steps to do just that.

The first step is to be able to stop and identify that we are in a negative emotional response like fear (we can also use these steps for sadness, anger, anxiousness or guilt). Simply acknowledge, “I’m feeling x right now.”

The second step is to acknowledge that our perspective is clouded; that we have a limited point of view of the situation. Even though we think we might have all the information, we rarely do.

The third step is to ask: “Is there an assumption that I’m making that isn’t true? Do I have a ‘story’ from my past experiences that I am wrapping around this particular situation?  Is it clouding my judgment and reaction?”

These three steps provide opportunities for us as leaders to admit that we don’t have all the answers and to grow from the acknowledgement that we have preconceived beliefs that create knee-jerk reactions. Fear is our body’s way of telling us that we need to stop and evaluate safety on a physical level. However, on an emotional level, it’s telling us to see what lies we are living in–like the one about CEOs being superheroes. When we begin to bring more vulnerability into the C-Suite and other areas of our lives, we take performance and emotional intelligence to the next level. It changes the way we view negative emotions and, instead of avoiding them, we learn to welcome them as an opportunity to learn about ourselves.

If you would like to learn more about Elyse click here.


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