The 5 Common Fears That Come With Leadership

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership" by Ronald A. Heifetz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do leaders fear the most? What are their top insecurities?

Leaders may seem invincible but they are also prone to fears and insecurities. In their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, leadership experts Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky, and Ronald Heifetz point out five main fears that come with leadership: 1) disappointing people, 2) incompetence, 3) hard decisions, 4) failure, and 5) exhaustion.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the five toughest leadership fears.

Fear #1: Disappointing People

As you learned in the politics and authority sections, while leading adaptive change, there’s a good chance the different groups you represent will come into conflict with each other or with a particular change initiative. You’ll have to disappoint at least one party to make progress.

To handle this fear:

1. Talk to the people with progress-stopping loyalties (loyalties that leave them opposed to your change). You’ll know who these people are from your diagnostic exercises. Tell them that they need to change their loyalties. This might be uncomfortable—people might feel betrayed and turn away from you. Or, conversely, you might discover that they don’t hold the loyalties you thought they did.

  • Example #1: The CEO of a company needed to reform the compensation system. Some of the firm’s longest-standing employees, including the CEO’s mentor, were opposed to the reform. The CEO spoke with his mentor and his mentor was offended, which made the CEO uncomfortable, but it was necessary.
  • Example #2: Marty had been going to synagogue with his father for a long time but no longer wanted to attend. He expected his father to take the news badly, but in fact, his father had only been going to synagogue because he thought Marty wanted to go.

2. If you can’t talk to the people with progress-stopping loyalties because they’re unreachable (such as an ancestor who’s died), create closure. You might write them a letter or talk to their grave, apologizing or requesting forgiveness. Or, get rid of a possession that symbolizes the unproductive loyalty. 

  • (Shortform example: If your ancestors were very religious but you need to walk away from this loyalty, you might give away any of their religious mementos you’d been keeping.)

3. Remember what you’re keeping. You’re not abandoning all of your loyalties, or even any of them—just the parts of them that are no longer suited to your current environment. If people accuse you of being a traitor, remember that you’re doing your best to keep as much as you can.

Fear #2: Incompetence

The second leadership fear is of incompetence, which is unavoidable when tackling adaptive challenges—to change, you have to be working beyond your comfort zone and area of expertise. While necessary, incompetence can be uncomfortable for both you and your authorizers—most people don’t like feeling or appearing inept, and most authorizers don’t want to see the leaders they trust adrift.

The best way to get through fear of incompetence is to practice displaying your ineptitude:

1. Flat-out tell people what you don’t know or explain that you’re trying a new role you’re untrained for. This will help reduce their fear because they understand the situation better.

2. Put yourself in (low-stakes) situations in which you’re likely to look inept. This will help you get used to the feeling.

  • For example, Marty, who had no acting experience, took acting classes with talented young students who already had professional credits. This was a low-stakes situation because the class was separate from work and displaying his ineptitude came with no professional consequences.

3. Start studying a field that’s brand-new to you. As you start learning a new discipline, you’ll likely notice parallels between it and your area of expertise, and you can use these parallels to think about your situation in a fresh way.

  • For example, if you start learning stage magic, you might start to notice how easily people let their assumptions blind them.

Displaying your incompetence is also a way to lead by example—after seeing your willingness to embrace the unknown, others will find the courage to start stepping beyond their own comfort zones too. 

Fear #3: Hard Decisions

The third fear is of difficult decisions, which are inherent to adaptive leadership. Adaptive decisions can be hard for four reasons:

1. None of the options are obviously better or worse than each other.

  • (Shortform example: If you’re trying to decide whom to hire for a position and all of your top candidates have important strengths and weaknesses, you don’t know which candidate is best.)

2. You have to choose between an option with a known but average outcome, or an unknown but possibly ideal (or terrible) outcome. 

  • (Shortform example: Your existing social media campaigns improve your sales by a predictable percentage. If you changed them, you might improve sales by a lot more, but you also run the risk of decreasing them if the new campaign isn’t successful.)

3. The right choice comes with losses. 

  • For example, you might need to close a division and lay people off to protect the bottom line. This will hurt those who are laid off as well as the rest of the organization’s morale.

4. All of the options conflict with your values. 

  • For example, say you value both consensus decision-making and meeting decision deadlines. If you’re part of a group that can’t find a consensus and the deadline is approaching, you’ll have to sacrifice one of your values no matter which option you choose.

Since it’s impossible to get around these decisions, you may as well try to enjoy them. To change your attitude and try to love these hard decisions:

  • Accept their inevitability. Everyone experiences hard decisions throughout their life.
  • Remember every option has positives. The decision wouldn’t be hard if only one option had merit.
  • Surrender some control. Once you let a decision into the world, you lose control of the outcome—what happens will be influenced by external factors you may not have even seen coming.
  • Remember that they’re not permanent. If you make a decision and later it’s clear it was the wrong one, make a new decision to correct it.
  • Note that not all decisions are important. Decisions probably won’t affect you as much as you think they will.
    • (Shortform example: If you have to decide what kind of computer to buy, it might seem like a monumental task at the time, but after a few years you’ll have to buy a new machine anyway because technology dates so quickly.)

Fear #4: Failure

The fourth fear is of failure, which, like the other fears, is an inherent part of adaptive leadership.

To permit yourself to fail: 

  • Change your definition of success. You should consider an experiment or intervention successful if you learned something from it, not based on whether or not it produced the desired outcome.
  • Warn your team. Be up-front with people about the possibility of failure so that they’re not flabbergasted when it happens, and so they don’t lose confidence in you. Also, recruit their ownership in the intervention and failure.
  • Use low-risk experiments. It’s easier to fail at something small (like a pilot program) than something big (like a company-wide rollout). The consequences aren’t as dire.

Fear #5: Exhaustion

By nature, adaptive change is a long and frustrating process, and as it drags on, you might become numb, or consider compromising (or even giving up). To survive this process, and overcome the fifth fear—of exhaustion—build your ability to endure discomfort. 

To do this:

  • Slowly expose yourself to increasing amounts of discomfort. For example, when you’re in a difficult conversation, don’t leave it at the first opportunity—stay in it longer than normal.
  • Create short-term goals. (Shortform example: Once a month, start a conversation with someone who opposes your initiative.)
  • Remember your purposes. If you can keep the end in sight, you’ll be less discouraged by how far away it is.
  • Don’t let anyone learn your limits—if they think you can outlast them, they won’t resist you as hard. For example, at the beginning of hard meetings, one leader said that he was willing to keep the meeting running for as long as it took to sort things out. Other people who didn’t want to spend all day in a meeting didn’t try to sabotage the agenda or create delays in an attempt to end the meeting, because they knew up front that wouldn’t work.
  • Maintain your patience. Do this by empathizing with everyone who’s involved in the adaptive change—remember that they’re acting the way they are because they’re facing loss.
The 5 Common Fears That Come With Leadership

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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