Leadership 101: Fear
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
In a recent Facebook post, Dr. Michael Youssef – an internationally recognized Evangelical-Anglican pastor – stated, “When we allow fear to control us, it deteriorates our relationship with God.”
That’s a relatively simple truth.
But some of Youssef’s readers responded by asking, “Well, then how do we eliminate fear?”
That was and is the wrong question.
Though most leaders know better, it is surprising the number of people – and I’m talking full-grown, reasonably educated adults – who still wrongly believe that courage means fearlessness or the absence of fear.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Without fear there is no need for courage. If we reread what Dr. Youssef is saying, we see that we must not let fear “control” us. That’s a far cry from saying we must eliminate fear.
FEAR ATTACKS THE FIVE MOUNTAINS
Fear exists. It’s here. It’s with us always; sometimes dormant and hibernating, but frequently gnawing at our physical, mental, emotional, intuitive and spiritual ramparts (Yes, we’re talking about the “five mountains”).
Fear is a painful emotion. It’s physically and mentally draining; and emotionally – even spiritually – corrupting. And so we should always strive to mitigate the draining and corrupting effects of fear whenever possible. At the same time we should embrace the rational, responsible, hard-wired-into-us decision-making process that comes from a bit of properly channeled fear.
The analogy for leaders I often use when discussing the decision-making process spawned by fear is that of the young Marine rifle-squad leader not wanting to lead his men down a particular route of a dark ravine because (based on good tactical intelligence and his own developed intuition) he reasonably “fears” his squad will be ambushed and destroyed. The ever-uncomfortable emotion of fear – fueling and igniting the squad leader’s reasoning – may be saving lives by compelling him to choose a different route. And that’s a good thing. The different route may also be dangerous, but that is a calculated risk the squad leader takes, and we all must take calculated risks from time to time.
So the question is not how do we eliminate fear from our lives. Fear is with us at times, and it’s going to be with us. Fear can help us, but it can also paralyze us if we give it its head. The question is how do we manage fear.
IMMEDIATE PHYSICAL DANGER
There are many types of fear (some of which would qualify as anxieties), and we will examine those in forthcoming LEADERSHIP 101 lessons. Today we want to look at fear of immediate physical danger (what we refer to as IPD).
Of all the fears and anxieties we leaders have to deal with, fear of IPD is the easiest to manage, and it gives us a baseline for understanding what fear is and what needs to be done to mitigate it. We recognize this fear for what it is, and we press on – doing the right thing – in spite of the fear.
I say it’s “easier” to manage the fear of IPD than other types of fear, because IPD is usually a short term fear. If we are skilled at overcoming IPD, we know we will get through the danger (we may even smell the sweetness of victory on the other side before we move into the danger). And we are usually so busy doing the things that will enable us to survive IPD, we don’t have time to focus on the fear.
Examples of those experiences which stimulate fear of immediate physical danger are engaging in combat (armed and unarmed) and skydiving (particularly the first time). There are other examples, but we will consider these two because in both cases we clearly recognize the physiological reactions to fear.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
Dr. Matthew Tull, an expert on anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders, writes, “When you are in a stressful or dangerous situation and experience fear and anxiety, your body goes through a number of changes:
“Your heart rate may increase.
“Your vision may narrow (sometimes called ‘tunnel vision’).
“You may notice that your muscles become tense.
“You may begin to sweat.
“Your hearing may become more sensitive.”
Sound familiar? Just ask any soldier or Marine who has experienced combat. Ask anyone who has ever been in a gunfight. Ask anyone who has ever leapt from a perfectly good airplane for the first time.
The keys to managing those “changes” and controlling or mitigating the adverse effects of fear during combat or other high-risk experiences – especially if or when the situation deteriorates – is to literally over-prepare for every imaginable worst-case scenario.
THE WAY OF THE MARINE
My own Marine Corps is particularly good at this type of hyper-preparation. U.S. Marines are known for high-intensity training, physical and mental fitness, extreme discipline, attention-to-detail, an embracing of the soldierly virtues, and a developing of the idea within each Marine that he is the toughest, most skilled, most committed warfighter the world has ever seen. Sounds like a lot of hyperbole to many civilians with no real frame of reference for what it means to be a Marine. But for Marines, this kind of hyper-preparation physically, mentally, and emotionally – even intuitively and spiritually – saves lives in combat.
How? Because when the situation degrades, when the outcome seems grim, and old man terror comes knocking on the door; the Marine is conditioned to instinctively focus – despite the fear – on the task at hand. He knows he is good at what he’s doing (probably better than the man who’s trying to kill him). He’s confident that his buddies on his right and his left can be depended on to do their jobs. And he knows that 237 years of tradition are following behind him, and he cannot ever fail that tradition.
Again, this doesn’t mean that the Marine is not afraid. In a desperate fight only a fool is unafraid. But when fear strikes, the Marine is able to fall back on all the physical, mental, and spiritual tools given him from day-one in boot camp to the present. Fear is immediately rerouted away from that which is the Marine’s necessary point of focus, and he is almost magically enabled to do what needs to be done.
The Marine Corps isn’t the only military force that embraces a culture of preparing the whole man – body, mind, and soul – to deal with fear. I’m just using the example of Marines because – being a Marine infantryman myself and having been embedded as a journalist with Marines at war – I’ve experienced first-hand this system at work, and it is indeed a magnificent thing to behold.
The channeling of fear and the dependency on instinct driven by extreme discipline and hard training is why combatants in well-disciplined Western armies almost never break and run even during the most desperate fighting. This wasn’t always the way. But it is why today U.S. Navy SEALs and Army Rangers and Special Forces operators, for instance, will often say their training is actually far more difficult than real-world operations. Fear is there for these men, but the energy generated from the fear drives the man forward, while the adverse effects of the fear have been put in a bottle because the perception of any immediate physical danger to men who have trained hard to meet it is relative.
BACK TO THE QUESTION
So getting back to the question asked by Dr. Youssef’s readers: It should not be how do we “eliminate” fear, because frankly we can never eliminate fear. The question should be how do we “deal with” fear.
Life is frequently tough, particularly for those of us in leadership positions. And fear is going to be with us on the journey.
We wish we could eliminate fear, but we can’t. So we manage and mitigate fear by drawing on our individual courage which is derived from conditioning ourselves. And we condition ourselves by becoming both masters of our professions and masters of our lives: Life-mastery we will achieve through either group courses of tough instruction (if we are fortunate to have served in elite military organizations and then continue to condition ourselves based on what we’ve learned in those organizations) or individually tailored programs (individual physical training, reading, self-teaching, private counseling, martial arts, devoting more time to worship, meditation, and tapping into our spirituality). We do these things so that when fear rears its head, we will instinctively do what’s right in spite of fear. We will act on reason instead of emotion, and we will put our trust in God.
Stay with us. There’s so much more, including a great deal more on fear, types of fear, and how to manage and mitigate fear. Previous Leadership 101 pieces are available here. If you have questions or suggestions, I’m at email@example.com.
– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor who writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He directs the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. Smith’s website is uswriter.com.