Dear Dave: I manage a large department. My team and I are expected to do some amazing things with a very modest budget. And our work is difficult and time consuming. My employees are worried about our future, and they believe that the company is losing money. The grapevine is spreading rumors like crazy. The truth is, I am fearful about our future too. But I know I dare not show it and must not add to the panic. So far, I have not lost any employees to our competition. What can I do to lead everyone when I am worried too? -- F

Your note is coming across to me loud and clear because I, too, have been in your shoes and had to manage some frightened teams that gossiped gloom and doom every day. It is very difficult to tell your team that things are OK when you know they are not. In a sense, leaders must also be great actors.

The advice I received from a fellow manager is to never show that I am afraid. I can show that I am concerned, but explain that things are being checked and mended. I always hated that feeling you get when you leave a management meeting full of facts and figures that tell me we are unstable and our profits are heading south and I am supposed to walk the halls and chat with employees who are asking, “Well, how bad are things?”

I am not a very good liar, and I would tell my staff that things are going well, and we are on solid ground. All the while my hands are in my pockets, and I am pinching myself to stay serious and focused. My team would always give me a look like, “Who are you kidding?” when I would try to tell them something that I did not believe myself.

Fear carries with it an assortment of conflicting feelings and emotions. Those who find themselves fearing their role as a leader are often shocked by its force and can be found deep in confusion and self-doubt. If you ask any leader about the repercussions of fear, they may honestly tell you what President Franklin Roosevelt said when facing the public during The Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Simply, fear is potentially all-consuming.

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Know your fears

Recognizing your fears and acknowledging them for what they are allows any leader to create a productive outcome. Before leaders can properly face their fear, they must recognize which areas of their organizational life are full of fear and anxiety. Our primal fears are innate, refined by our experiences for ultimate survival. The following fears must be faced head-on to be able to lead and move forward.

Fear of the unknown. I think we fear what we do not understand. Being a leader means learning and sorting out what is real and what is imagined. If our imagination runs away from our ability to be a realist that cuts through ambiguity, we will always be on pins and needles facing enemies we don’t even understand – and may not be real. Good leaders recognize real threats and form strategies to conquer them.

Fear of failure. We can’t lead a life thinking we are going to fail no matter what we do. I think that even the best leaders have moments when they think their plans and people cannot succeed. The difficulty lies in escaping from that paralyzing and persistent sense of failure. Failure is always a distinct possibility in any endeavor, but we must escape from its grip and imagine the possibilities and benefits of keeping our eyes on the targets and not the disabling demons.

Fear of criticism and rejection. Let’s face it: there will always be people who attack our ideas and ideals and keep us from achieving the future we would love to see. Some tell us that an idea is silly and won’t work, even though they have no basis for this attack. We need to think through exactly what is being said about a direction we want to achieve and whether or not the criticism is accurate or just misleading. Being afraid of others telling us what we cannot or should not do, and what we cannot accomplish, will quietly and surely gain strength if left untreated.

Finally, fear of not being perfect. As leaders, we are often taught that we should look brave, fearless, calm, invincible, and perfect. Right? The fact is there's no such thing as a perfect leader. I wouldn’t necessarily tell my employees I am nervous as can be, but I would let them know when I am concerned. Remember, fear is fire: you can let it cook your food or watch it burn your house down.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.