A question of courage


I never fully understood the negative impact of fear in the workplace until I had left it and could look at it as an “outsider”. I write about it often now because when the doors are closed and I’m in conversations with even the best leaders, I hear them speak of what they cannot do. We dig deeper and find that fear is holding them back.

So often it’s clear as we talk that these fears are generally based on assumptions and the presumed negative consequences of taking action. When they realize there isn’t truth to what’s driving their fear, they can move ahead and take action on those things that have a profound impact on their ability to lead in the best way.

Fear is a big (negative) driver in organizations. It lurks quietly behind other emotions and unless you are vigilant it can stifle your ability to lead well. Because so many of the things that cause fear at work don’t shout out at you to notice them, they may be overlooked until it’s too late. When fear is overlooked or dismissed it can often snowball into failure for a leader. Don’t let that happen. Make sure that you are aware of your fears and that you don’t dismiss them.

If you feel personal resistance, reluctance, or even anger about taking action – lean into these emotions! Consider what they may cost you and your organization if they keep you from taking action. Ask yourself:

  • Is it fear that I feel?
  • What is driving my fear?
  • What assumptions am I making about what might occur if I take action? Are they true?
  • How might I overcome my fear?
  • What’s the worst that could happen if I take action?
  • What’s the best that could happen if I take action?

If you read my posts regularly, I know that you are interested – if not working hard – to be a great leader. So the most important question you can ask yourself when fear keeps you from taking action is:

  • Is it the right thing to do?

If you are a leader who has a solid value system in place and you answer “yes” to this question, fear becomes a non-issue. Miraculously, you are called to step into that fear in order to do what is right and to take action for the greater good.

“Is it the right thing to do?” is THE question to ask yourself when you realize that fear prevents you from taking action.

Whenever you feel resistance, reluctance or anger try asking yourself this set of questions and focus in on the final one. Courage will follow!

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

17 comments on “A question of courage

  1. When you exibit fear you tend to shutdown open communication within the team you are leading. As this permeates your organization you stifle your growth and the growth of your team. You cannot take advantage of the talents, creativity, and unique perspectives unless everyone feels that they can make comments and provide their perspective without judgement.

  2. Good morning,
    I am a business consultant helping companies deliver what their sales person sells. I have had an excellent 2 years helping 4 companies develop their capability and performance. Two of the projects are now completed and the fear I am experiencing about developing new business is palpable. I am paralysed into non action. This blog is excellent in that the last question (Whats the best that can happen) is a question I haven’t asked myself before…

  3. Great article to read and reflect upon. Definitely led me to sit back and think. I appreciate hearing that fear is a also a key struggle among senior leaders. It teaches me that we are all human and all working to overcome similar challenges. One thought came to my mind at the end of the article. I have often heard that statement that “fear breeds fear” within a group (similar to what Mark was writing above). I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, I have seen it happen. There is also, however, the flipside to this statement. The opposite is true as well – “courage breeds courage.” I remember thinking of this idea one day while giving a presentation and it totally changed my perspective and how the presentation turned out. Choosing courage – and eschewing fear – is a powerful tool. Thanks for the article!

  4. Hi Brady,

    Thanks for adding that statement about courage – it is uplifting. I do think the issue that many leaders grapple with is not really getting to the heart of fear. They might call it something else – anger is a common “presenting” behavior for fear. In order to have courage, I think we have to recognize the fear first.

    And then choose courage, and watch it spread! Thanks for the comment.

  5. Hello, Mary Jo Asmus!

    I love the information that you write about! I especially loved the e-book, Working with Your Executive Coach – it is FABULOUS! (I wish all “coaches” would read this to be inspired to follow ethical and high standard practices.

    Kathy O’Keeffe
    KOK Consulting & Coaching

  6. Mary Jo, I like your article here, however one sentance merited caution in my mind: “Miraculously, you are called to step into that fear in order to do what is right and to take action for the greater good.” If you feel that something is the right thing to do, depending on what the action is and who is affected, it would be wise to make a diligent effort to confirm. People get caught up in advocating an action that is driven by their personal feelings and not necessarily if it is the right thing for other people.

  7. Fear– “False Evidence Appearing Real”.. A friend was so kind enough to share with me. During our meeting we would discuss all the things that get in the way of success. This was a biggie.

    Love your article and the method you have of addressing the fear problem. It can be surface, but most times it runs deeper.. emotional baggage of yesterday.
    Facing the fear is a must and realization that it is truly a mind made up problem. Some people are able to do this very easily and some never change..I like to bring it up in all meetings, it gives me a better understanding of the people I work with and what holds them back and how to move forward with meetings and handeling expectations. False evidence appearing real.. Eliminate that and the world will be your oyster in business or Life.

  8. Kathy, thank you.

    Jane, for sure. Not everything needs to be checked with others, but some things will. Thanks!

    John, thanks for that addition. The ones who have fear that runs so deep that they just can’t change aren’t the ones that I write about! I like it that you are having the “what’s holding you back” discussion at meetings – it creates a space for dialog and maybe for you to help!

  9. Thank you for your quick reply, leaving home when I was 16 had me experience many different fears of which with persistance, focus, belief and most of all faith I overcame them..

    My role now is to help others do the same, I appreciate this topic and thank you for bringing it to the surface for others to vent!

  10. Mary Jo, up until now, my favorite “facing fear” question was “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” (Brian Tracy to me in 1994.)

    Now I’ll add this to my arsenal, giving you the credit in my upcoming bookrevision, Integrity-Based Communications 2013.

  11. Well done, Mary Jo. You’re right, fear is prevalent in work places, and we all need to build our courage to do what needs to be done and say what needs saying. Your reflections parallel my latest newsletter: “Is Work Making You Seasick?” You can find it at: http://www.alwattsintegro.com/

    “You gain strength,courage and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

  12. Excellent post. In these challenging times the willingness and courage to take the big decisions is even more critical in my view. Sometimes when the personal agenda becomes more important than results, people back off from doing what is right.

    Duncan Brodie

  13. Thanks Duncan. I’d like to believe that if leaders stop and think about their values and intentions in holding back as well as the most important question, that they’d be willing to speak up.

  14. Excellent post and very practical. Many opportunities are lost when leaders opt to overlook their fears and these can affect morale.

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