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Fear in Leadership: Why You're Afraid to Really Lead

Why You're Afraid to Really Lead: Harnessing Fear for Flourishing

Leadership is often celebrated as the pinnacle of success. But, many people don't see the invisible parts.

Like fear.

Leadership fear is an intrinsic part of the journey toward leadership flourishing. And in the journey of life.

Fear of failure.

Fear of criticism.

Fear of rejection.

Fear of the unknown.

Fear of not being enough.

Have you felt it?

Know that you're not alone. Fear is innate to being a human. In this article, I'll share what I've learned about fear, and how you can use it for leadership development and stepping into your unique Personal Power.

Ready to face your fears? 🙌

Table of contents for fear in Leadership & flourishing

Why You're Afraid to Really Lead

I'm just going to say it.

You're afraid to lead—really lead from your unique Personal Power—because you could succeed. Achieve your wildest dreams.

No, that's not a typo. You can. That's what I've come to believe over the past decade of working with and coaching leaders. Why? Fear of failure is deeply rooted in the subconscious mind—informed by past experiences and social conditioning—and it's trying to convince you that success isn't available to you.

Oh, but it is.

Let me explain. Fear doesn't want you to succeed, because if you do, then you're stripping fear of its power. Breaking years of programming to "protect" you. So, fear can't let that happen, and as a result, you need to convince yourself that it isn't possible. That becomes the default.

It's not a conscious choice. It's merely programmed. We're born with only two fears.

Yes, two.

Fear of falling and fear of loud noises. They come from our evolutionary biology—rooted in the amygdala—which is incapable of distinguishing leadership challenges from actual danger. So, the rest are fears we unconsciously create to maintain the status quo.

Mental and Emotional Reasons for Fear

We have a powerful mind. Its ability to dream up situations is limitless. And, while fear is a natural reaction to some situations, it's complex and there are many triggers, like:

  1. Experiences connected to past traumas. Past emotional traumas or negative experiences can significantly impact our fears. From past failures and rejection to criticism, these experiences can create deep emotional responses (and wounds) that influence our fears in the present.

  2. Limiting beliefs. Fear is often rooted in limiting beliefs you hold about yourself and the world around you. They're deeply ingrained and come from past experiences or social conditioning. Most of the time, you don't even notice the limiting belief, yet it drives your behavior.

  3. Self-Doubt. Self-doubt and lack of confidence can also bring on a bout of fear. You may question your abilities, worry about making mistakes, or being judged by others. That fear holds you back from taking risks, embracing new opportunities, and moving into your unique Personal Power. Take a moment.

Take a minute to think about what triggers fear for you. What areas in leadership do you experience fear most often? Jot them down. We'll come back to them later.

Which leadership fear do you experience most often?

  • Fear of failure

  • Fear of criticism

  • Fear of not being good enough

  • Fear of decision-making

Fear Fuels Personal Growth and Leadership

Fear can be an energizing source of inspiration and motivation. It can stretch you out of your comfort zone into human flourishing and leadership development.

Fear is like kindling for a fire. It's fuel. It spikes your blood pressure, increases your heart rate, and heightens your senses. This primal response prepares you for danger and keeps you alive. But what if you could tap into the benefits of this primal response?

Recall a challenging situation you recently experienced. Perhaps it was presenting a new strategy at your company or taking on a bigger leadership role. The fear that you felt in those moments likely motivated you to prepare more, to think critically, and to stay focused. The benefits.

Now, let's delve into three ways fear can nourish your leadership flourishing. Just like kindling for a warm winter's bonfire.

Fear Uncovers Your Stories & Underlying Beliefs

Fear can be a powerful emotion that often uncovers your deepest stories and underlying beliefs. The things that drive how you show up and act every day. These stories and underlying beliefs tend to hold people back from connecting with their Higher Self, or inner truth, and clarity.

How? When you feel fear, you're likely confronting something that challenges your sense of self or the way you see the world. It threatens your very being or reality.

Let's revisit the challenging situation you recently experienced.

What was the situation? What happened? What story did it uncover?

What belief did it reveal about yourself or your capabilities?

Was it true? What evidence supports it as true?

How will your awareness of the story impact future thoughts and actions?

Fear can be wisdom in disguise, guiding you toward self-discovery that frees you to grow as a leader (and human). By uncovering your stories and underlying beliefs, you have the choice to rewrite your narratives. To embrace fear. To challenge limiting beliefs. And to witness your leadership fears transform into leadership flourishing.

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Fear Helps You Courageously Navigate Risks

Fear and risk tend to go hand in hand. When you take a risk—there are unknowns—and there is fear. But with risk, there is also courage.

It takes courage to stretch out of your comfort zone into the unknown. It takes self-trust to challenge yourself in a way you never thought possible. It reveals what you're truly capable of. It cultivates inner strength and tenacity.

I'm a climber. With climbing comes fear. A LOT OF FEAR. But what has been so amazing, and surprising, about climbing is it taught me to be a better leader. It helped me befriend fear and differentiate between real fear that protects me and fear based on self-limiting beliefs.

Rachel Marie Korb Climbing a 22 metre route in Spain
Recentering during a paralyzing fear moment while climbing my first route. I finished the 22 meter route!

It gave me the courage to show up on the wall and then as a leader. To take more calculated risks. To ask for what I needed. To set boundaries. To be okay with feeling uncomfortable most of the time.

So, how can you connect with your fear to courageously take risks in your life? What scares you the most? Presenting in public? Expressing your true opinions? Setting boundaries? Something from your recent challenge?

Reflect on why it triggers fear for you. Then, explore what potential growth lies on the other side of that fear. How would it change your life if you could face it courageously?

Fear Builds Your Resilience

Every time you face a fear—starting out small and progressing over time—you deepen your resilience. It's because you'll start to notice that what you anticipated was often far worse than the actual experience.

I'll share an example. During a company-wide layoff, I had to notify an individual on my team that their role was impacted. It was their birthday. I felt horrible—beyond words—but it was my responsibility. One of those difficult moments as a leader I wish upon no one.

I imagined that they would be angry, say hurtful things, and never want to talk to me again. And while the conversation was excruciating—I still feel a physical response as I write this—none of those things happened. There were tears, silence, and a couple of questions. That was it. Later, there were meaningful conversations as friends, once colleagues. A dinner with our partners in Barcelona. And a recommendation for their next job. The outcome wasn't as bad as I had anticipated.

So, take time to celebrate each fear faced (hopefully, they don't need to be layoff conversations). It helps you see the progress you're making and reminds you that yes, you are capable. And everything will be okay.

How to Harness Fear for Flourishing

Now that we've discussed how fear works and how it can fuel your development as an ambitious female leader, let's talk about the how.

How can you fully welcome fear into your life? Integrate it into your being? Here are three phases to move through to move from fear to flourishing with fear.

Phase 1: Make Fear Your Friend

When you befriend fear, it becomes your companion. It helps you uncover stories and underlying beliefs. It guides you to make better decisions. It stretches you to grow.

So, how do you befriend it? Personify it. You can use a character from a movie or series. You can make one up. Draw it on a sheet of paper. Give it life. Give it a name. It could be a stuffed animal.

My fear friend is a stuffed toy, a tiger shark named Dolores (if you speak Spanish, I hope you can appreciate the joke. If you don't, dolores means pains). Dolores started as a tool to help me confront my paralyzing, irrational fear of sharks. Fear of them in the bathtub and pool, not just the sea. I've slept with her every night since I embarked on the journey of facing that fear, and I've moved through the three phases I'm sharing with you.

As of today, I've learned to swim further out into the sea, snorkel, get my open water scuba diving certification, and dived with angel sharks in Lanzarote. Do I still fear sharks? Of course. They're an apex predator to be respected, but it's more about having a healthy fear. And when I reach my ultimate goal, I will swim with tigers in Hawaii with Ocean Ramsey.

Rachel Marie Korb diving in Malta
Diving in Malta

Actions to take to make friends with fear:

  1. Journal about your fears. Write down the situations that trigger your fear response— leadership fears and life fears (they're interconnected). Explore the reasons behind those fears and how they have influenced your choices and actions in the past. Journaling about your fear can give you ideas to inspire your Fear Friend.

  2. Create your Fear Friend. It's time to make your Fear Friend! This part should be fun. Find the process that is fun for you. Could be drawing. Painting. Pottery. Going to a kid's store and finding a toy. Could be the perfect GIF. Whatever it is, it should evoke a sense of play.

Phase 2: Overcome The Emotional Blocks

Now that you've got your Fear Friend, it's time to go deeper together into human emotion—your emotional blocks. They manifest as fear, anxiety, or another negative emotion that limits your flourishing. They often stem from past experiences or limiting beliefs that have become ingrained.

And, we're constantly moving through these emotional blocks—or stories—of what's wrong or could go wrong. Our survival brain scans for it, so we have some sense of certainty. Of saftey. At its core, it's fear-based.

The good news? You don't have to believe your thoughts. You are not your thoughts. And you can change your thoughts to overcome the emotional blocks with growth mindset practices.

Actions to take to overcome the emotional blocks:

  1. Journal, some more. Reflect on areas of your life and leadership where you feel stuck. What emotions arise when you think about taking steps toward growth? Is it fear of failure, rejection, or uncertainty? Something else? What thought patterns do you notice?

  2. Explore and reframe. Pick one limiting belief or negative thought associated with your emotional blocks. Move through these questions:

    1. What am I believing about ______ right now?

    2. Is it true?

    3. What is it like to live with this belief?

    4. What's keeping me from letting it go?

    5. What would life be like if I wasn't believing it? How will I grow?

  3. Seek support. Consider working with a coach or therapist. They can provide guidance and accountability as you navigate through your emotional blocks and achieve professional growth.

3 free practices to move into your unique personal power

Phase 3: Find Fear And Face It

Neuroplasticity is experience-dependent. It means our brain changes with experience, and it gets good at what we practice. Over time, it changes our mental habits and thoughts. That's what phase three is all about.

Actions to take to face your fear:

  1. Find your fear. Which fear do you want to face first? There are two ways to approach this: 1) The fear that will be easiest to face (for beginning fear facers) or 2) The one you feel most stuck in that is limiting your leadership goals the most (for seasoned fear facers). Start small and gradually expose yourself to the situations or experiences that trigger your fear.

  2. Action planning. Identify one action that you can take today to confront your fear. Break it down into smaller, manageable steps, and set due dates for completing each step.

  3. Seek support. Get support from a friend or a professional. This person should be able to encourage, challenge, and celebrate your personal and professional growth. They help you progress and move into your unique Personal Power.

Real Leadership: Let's Recap

Fear is a natural response and powerful emotion that can either limit or nourish your growth—in life and as a leader. When you understand the types of fear you experience, growth mindset practices, let go of limiting beliefs, and take action to face your fears, you unlock your full potential and achieve meaningful professional growth. And you'll begin to notice flourishing in your leadership and life.

Remember, fear isn't a barrier. It's an opportunity for nourishment and breakthrough. If you're looking for guidance to be boldly unbounded in fear, I can help you with private coaching.

Are you ready to step into your unique Personal Power and really lead?

free clarity conversation for private coaching with rachel marie korb


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