Why fearlessness often leads to failure

by 10 Aug 2016
Throughout history, the headlines and accolades have always belonged to the fearless.
We celebrate the heroic souls who dismiss personal safety and stride forth into the fray against odds that seem insurmountable. St George and the dragon, Jason and the Argonauts, Odin and the Frost Giants – almost every culture has its myths and legends lionising bravery and self-sacrifice.
So, what is it that we find so enticing about bravery and fearlessness when most of us in reality prefer lives of relative safety and comfort?
Fear is one of the reasons we have survived
Fear, it turns out, is actually quite a useful emotion when it is appropriately applied. An overly curious nature mixed with naivety and overconfidence can be a recipe for disaster. Sending a canary into a mine to test for the presence of gas, while cruel, is actually a pretty savvy thing to do. In this case, fear not only ensures the survival of many miners; it also increases the chances of eventual success while reducing costs – miners are rather more expensive than songbirds.
What’s more, many of our latent fears are based on our survival – spiders, heights, water all have their origins in some pretty rational concerns. Where fear can undermine leadership is when it becomes paralyzing, when judgment is replaced by constant evaluation and data-seeking. The truth is, in any decision we make we never have the complete picture or enough information. This is, it turns out, why good judgment is so critical to good leadership.
Fear can be an aide to judgment
One of the things that particularly defines leadership is a willingness and ability to make decisions and back them. What this really means is embracing ownership of the results. One of the burdens of leadership is that when you do achieve a success, it’s your team who won, but should failure be the outcome, you lost.
This makes good judgment one of a leader’s key accountabilities. So fear must necessarily be a part of this equation. It has us identify and weigh up risks, and consider more than just the possibility of success and account for it.
One of the criticisms we often make of strategic business plans is that the margins allowed for error are so slim. In other words, success is only guaranteed if everything goes exactly according to plan.
Of course, this is statistically unlikely, and a far better approach is to stack the odds of success in your favor by implementing systems and processes that allow for success, even on those days when not everything goes as it should.
Failure is often cited as being critical to success. But this is far more than a twee catchphrase of the eternally optimistic; it is a recognition that failure, rather than being a result, is a constant feature of the results we produce daily and should therefore be accounted for.
Learn to see fear as a lever for positive change
If we accept that fear has a lot of downsides, how can we turn this around and use fear as an asset in achieving positive change in order to generate the behavioral change we so desire? How can we generate an opposite fear, one that is linked to not changing?
TEDx speaker Kelly McGonigal and other health psychologists assert that, contrary to popular belief, not all stress (which is essentially a fear of possible outcomes) is necessarily bad. They further state that stressful experiences can be used to promote adaptive responses, and individuals can be trained to think of stress arousal as a way of maximizing performance.
The long and short of it is that reframing fear as an asset may not only remove impediments to performance but can actually serve to heighten and lift it. Fear (and its close cousin, stress) is suffering from some bad PR and really needs rebranding. We all need reminding that sometimes fear has been the good guy, and it has certainly been a considerable asset in the armory of social change.
Rebalance the fear
This is perhaps the most important point. We are not advocating that you ignore your fears or throw yourself at them as part of a midlife extreme-sport crisis, nor are we suggesting that they are all irrational and imaginary. What we are suggesting is that they can be useful for driving change and shifting behavior, and this relies on shifting the balance of the fear equation from one side to the other.
The next time you’re quaking in your boots and wishing you had picked up that ‘clinical strength’ antiperspirant, stop to consider fear not as a barrier to success but as possibly one of the most overlooked and underutilized motivators we have for driving us to success. Then set about reframing your fear.
The trick is to see fear – when appropriate – as a useful tool of leadership rather than as something to avoid.
Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory are behavioural researchers and strategists. An author, educator and corporate coach, Flanagan is the chief creative officer at The Impossible Institute, while Gregory is a regular on the ABC’s Gruen Planet and president and CEO of The Impossible Institute – an innovation and engagement think tank.