Win or learn – do all great leaders reframe their fear?

By Kim Goodhart

When Elon Musk sold PayPal to eBay, he could have taken his co-founders cut – PayPal sold for $1.5 billion – and retired a billionaire. Instead, he took a huge risk and invested the money in founding private space exploration company, SpaceX, of all things, and Tesla (all electric vehicles). Both ventures nearly bankrupted him – from billionaire to pauper – but in the end he won out. Both companies now carry significant value and Musk’s fame is assured.

It can manifest as a cold sweat, weakness in the legs and nausea; or ‘just’ a grim feeling in the pit of your stomach. Your response may be to freeze, to run or to fight, and it takes some serious cognitive muscle to override any of those neurobiological impulses.

In a business scenario, fear or risks may result in uncertainty, paralysis in decision making, anxiety – any number of physiological responses that make it hard to flex that cognitive muscle because our decision making becomes impaired.

In my up-close-and-personal chat with Marc England, CEO Genesis Energy <watch it here> he says, “I think that (fear) holds a lot of people back. There is a fear that if you get something wrong there might be a consequence.

“I have a reasonably high personal appetite for personal risk. I’ve never worried in my career about losing my job, I’ve never made a decision to be conservative in case I got it wrong,” says Marc.

What Marc is doing is reframing his fear.

“People’s safety, and harm to people, is not a good failure so you cannot take those risks. But putting a new product into market… if it fails, has limited consequences other than personal reputation,” says Marc.

Where one person may see a huge threat in launching a product that may fail, Marc see it as ‘only’ his reputation that would be damaged, which to him – in perspective – is nothing too serious.

Like Marc, great leaders learn to put context to the risks around them. They overcome the fears that hold others back by putting them into perspective.

“I think sometimes people can misinterpret what a good risk or a bad risk, a good failure or a bad failure might be, and can then be risk adverse in what actually isn’t the end of the world if it doesn’t work perfectly.”

Reframing and putting things in perspective is an important distinction that great leaders share, because it allows them to move more freely. Where fear may hold one person back from doing something new (or potentially risky), great leaders can reframe the situation and move forwards – taking them to new heights of success.

As CEO of Southern Cross Health Society Nick Astwick says in an earlier interview, “I learned not to associate myself too closely with my successes and failures”.

The world is changing. And it will be those who can manage their fear, who take smart risks, that will be best suited to lead us into the future.

As Nick Astwick says, “There’s a lot of risks and threats in that, but there is also a lot of opportunity”.

Leaders who reframe the risks and threats in the world in order to be able to see the opportunities in front of them have the power to create real change that will benefit all those around them.

Photo by: Jeremy Bishop