When leaders are uncertain, so are their followers. When a direction is not clear, or worse, a team is facing seemingly impossible odds, the natural reaction is fear. This is not a good combination because only through innovation can a solution be found, and fear pretty much stops innovation in its tracks. In the Harvard Business Review article, How to Lead When You Are Afraid, Peter Bregman writes about this and has some simple but profound steps for how to lead your way out of it.
Step 1 – The first step is to build your ‘emotional courage.’ This means your ability to act thoughtfully, strategically, and powerfully while feeling afraid. This takes some practice and you are going to have to be comfortable, being uncomfortable. Remember – your team is watching and following your lead.
Step 2 – Focus on the process. Rather than focus on what is seemingly an impossible target, focus instead on the small incremental steps that will get you there. By starting with the first step in the process, the goal will eventually come into sight. Show your team how they can get to the goal. Bregman uses the example of “Sell Differently” vs. “sell x dollar amount.” Reframing the steps of the process will create a different thought process.
Step 3 – Communicate clearly. No one will move forward when there is ambiguity and when a goal is seemingly impossible, mushy communication will stop all innovative thought at the gate. Bregman identifies four components of clear communication: Vision, Empathy, Direction, and Proof. Try to include each of these elements in your written and spoken communication and you will have better results.
These are very practical steps to leading people forward when there is fear due to challenging circumstances and big goals. You will not achieve success if you, as the leader are not authentic about your approach and expected outcomes. It’s okay to say, “we might not make it.” Being realistic is good, giving up is not an option. Leaders must lead through difficulty a lot, it’s why they are in the positions they are in. It’s not for the faint of heart. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they “know” the answers. It does mean that they lead the team through an innovative process that at least gives air to alternatives to the “impossible.” Most things that we have or do today were once considered impossible and it’s only the rare leader who isn’t at least a little afraid at the start. Resilience and emotional intelligence are built by leading through fear – not when it’s easy.