How to Walk the Tightrope Between Fearlessness and Healthy Fear

Channel the fear into a focus on what you have to do. Follow through on the throw and come off the field knowing you gave it everything. You might be surprised at just how often the scoreboard glows in your favor.

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If you've ever bolted away from a giant spider, overpacked for a trip "just in case" or sold your stock when you realized shares would probably plummet, you know how powerfully motivating fear can be. To have fear work this way isn't a bad thing; if you weren't scared of the lion or bear chasing you, you might end up being their lunch.

But taken to an extreme, fear can motivate you right out of opportunity, such as if you don't take a great promotion because you're scared to have new responsibilities. In my experience, success thus depends on walking a tightrope between the light and dark sides of fear so you stay out of trouble without becoming stuck.

Channeling Fear Through Super Bowl 51

In a lot of ways, business parallels sports. It's a serious-but-fun game where both offense (aggressive marketing, hiring more people) and defense (IT security, responding to customer complaints) contribute to the final score.

To understand the difference it makes to channel fear at the right time, take the New England Patriots: During Super Bowl 51, the Patriots faced the Atlanta Falcons. All through the first half of the game, their offense couldn't make progress. As the Falcons pulled into a 28-3 lead, it looked like the Patriots were going to lose badly.

It would have been easy for the Patriots to look at their situation and tell themselves their efforts wouldn't make a difference anymore because nobody could ever come back from that kind of deficit. Instead, they focused on having only a quarter and a half—just 18 minutes—to turn things around. They channeled their anxiety and took the mentality that every play was the most critical of the game.

Although the Patriots had been pushing offensively the whole time, they went all out for the rest of the game. Their defense, which was fresher than their opponents', did their job well. As the Falcons made mistakes, they started losing ground, and the game went into overtime. In the end, James White scored a touchdown that clinched the Patriots' victory.

Three Plays to Get Big Wins

Like the Patriots, if you lead, your goal should be to channel the positive side of fear and stop the unhealthy side. But what are the best plays to run for that goal?

First, help your team recognize what they've got in their toolbox. As a growth-oriented CEO, one of my main priorities has always been to show businesses the potential they're sitting on. I clarify the skills and assets within the company and help people see all the different ways they could maximize those elements. This process isn't just about taking inventory. It's about building confidence and presenting a clear, logical reason for why you've got a little faith.

Once the team has a clearer sense of their value, your next move is to guide them through selecting and implementing a competitive strategy everybody can feel good about. Although you could have dozens of plays in your book, look at your situation and pull specific tactics out rationally. Point to the finish line and insist that everybody contribute at the highest level they can.

In business, this might apply to everything from a 15-minute investor meeting to executing a massive rebrand. Suppose the investor has a reputation for shutting down presentations within the first three minutes. In that case, you might channel fear of quick rejection by prioritizing something quirky and hands-on to maintain the investor's initial attention. If the fear in the rebrand is coming across authentically, you could go all-in with one-on-one customer interaction, brand ambassadors and hiring a branding manager to keep your voice consistent. But by making the strategy and tactics more visible, you can create a calming sense of order that makes winning the game seem more doable.

Lastly, don't forget to celebrate with your team. Continuing when you're afraid takes guts and energy, and I believe part of what allows people to channel fear is the idea that they'll get rewarded for the effort if they face the rough stuff. They need the experience of being recognized, reflecting and taking a moment to acknowledge the joy of winning. Otherwise, playing another game won't seem all that appealing. Even if the trophy is as small as a "Nice job!" at the water cooler, let them hold it high for a few seconds before you move on to the next thing.

The Ball Is in Your Hands, So Go for the Touchdown

People you compete with in business can be great sports, but that doesn't mean they won't play to win. The challenges you face can also seem to present overwhelming odds. Maybe you'll even play in the worst weather possible, like when a pandemic hits.

But the choice in front of you won't get complicated. You can either listen to the side of fear that tells you to throw in the towel, or you can listen to the side that pushes you to identify what you'll do next and implement it with full power. Admittedly, sometimes that next step might be a Hail Mary pass because you don't have any other options, but as champions like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky have stressed, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take. Channel the fear into a focus on what you have to do. Follow through on the throw and come off the field knowing you gave it everything. You might be surprised at just how often the scoreboard glows in your favor.

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