Because risk management as it applies to executive decisioning is a subject that is not adequately addressed in the educational world, it is often left to lessons of experience. As such, learning how to recognize, understand, quantify and manage risk is one of those lessons that often comes at a very high price. While each individual has a different tolerance for risk, it is how a person chooses to manage risk that will have a direct correlation on their ability to succeed in the world of business. In today’s post I’ll examine the relationships between fear, risk, failure and success.

So, what is the greatest fear possessed by executives and entrepreneurs? It has been my experience that the greatest fear most professionals struggle with is the fear of failure. It is often times this fear of failure that governs how much risk a business person will take, and in turn how successful (or not) they are likely to become.

Fear in and of itself is not a bad thing, rather it is how a person chooses to cope with fear that will determine its effect on their life. Ask anyone who has ever been in combat and they’ll tell you that it is their innate and often heightened sense of fear that helped to keep them alive. A good soldier doesn’t give into fear, but they learn to respect and manage their fear so that it acutally becomes their ally and not their adversary.

Most professionals don’t naturally associate the words “success” and “failure” as having anything to do with one another. However under the right circumstances, failure is absolutely the best experiential learning tool available. Furthermore, I would go so far as to say failure is an essential element of becoming successful. In fact, if you show me a professional who has never experienced failure, I’ll say that professional either hasn’t tried hard enough or is very new to the world of business.

One of my favorite lessons in the world of overcoming failures, and understanding the value of persistence, is what can be learned from looking at the life of Abraham Lincoln. Born into poverty, Mr. Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout most of his life. He twice failed in business, lost eight different elections and suffered a nervous breakdown. The following bullet points represent Lincoln’s chronological path to the White House:

  • 1816: Lincoln’s family lost their home and he had to quit school to support them.
  • 1818: His mother passed away.
  • 1831: He failed in business.
  • 1832: He ran for state legislature and lost, also lost his job, and while he wanted to go to law school he couldn’t get in.
  • 1833: He borrowed money to start a new business and was bankrupt by the end of the year. He spent the next 17 years paying off the debt.
  • 1834: He ran for state legislature again and this time he won.
  • 1835: He was engaged to be married and his fiance died.
  • 1836: Mr. Lincoln suffered a total nervous breakdown and spent six months in bed.
  • 1838: He sought to become speaker of the state legislature and was again defeated.
  • 1840: He sought to become elector and was defeated.
  • 1843: Lincoln ran for Congress and lost.
  • 1846: He ran for Congress again and this time he won.
  • 1848: Lincoln lost his re-election race for Congress.
  • 1849: He sought the position of land officer in his home state and was turned down.
  • 1854: Lincoln ran for the US Senate and lost.
  • 1856: He sought the Vice-Presidential nomination and lost receiving less than 100 votes.
  • 1858: He ran yet again for the US Senate and lost.
  • 1860: Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States.

It was in fact Abraham Lincoln who later said: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” Lincoln was obviously someone who was more focused on pursuing his goals than being guided by a fear of failure. Thomas Edison failed more than 1000 times before he successfully invented the light bulb, and he was later quoted as saying: “Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

I have a strong belief that fear of failure is far more damaging than failure itself. While successful people overcome their fear of failure, fear absolutely incapacitates unsuccessful people. Over the years I have witnessed business people, who but for being guided by fear of failure, would have likely been very successful. It was Mark Twain who said: “Courage is resistance to and mastery of fear–not the absence of fear.”

Failure is really a matter of reason and perspective. I have met individuals ranging in perspective from those who believe anything short of perfection is failure, to those who don’t consider anything to be a failure. It is not where you fall on the risk spectrum that matters, rather it is how you learn to overcome your fears and manage risk that will determine how successful you will become. My nature is to be somewhat conservative, but I learned long ago that if I were to allow myself to be guided by my fears I would have very few successes. I am a classic example of someone who has learned to manage risk in order to assuage my fears, which in turn allows me to pursue activities that lead to success.

All people have the ability to gain control over their fear of failure by simply defining their tolerance for risk, and then using their new risk tolerance definition to manage their “fight or flight” tendencies. For years I have subscribed to using the following acronym to help overcome fear and manage risk:

Focus: Focus on your values, vision, mission, strategy, goals, tactics and processes. Clarity of thought and attention to detail will take you where you want to go. Don’t focus on failure; focus on success.

Explore: Search out your fears and confront them. Be willing to learn from your fears. I have learned far more from my fears and failures than I ever have from my victories. Introspective thinking is one of the most productive things you can do to advance your learning.

Assess: This is your time to innovate…Take stock of what you learn during times of self-assessment, failure analysis, introspective thinking and research. There is nothing wrong with failure assuming that you learn from it, leverage it, and not fall prey to the same mistakes in the future.

Respond: Develop a bias toward action…Use focus, exploration, and assessment to develop actionable steps to managing risk and achieving your goals. You can accomplish great things through action and few things through inaction.

Bottom line…Don’t be limited by your fears or your failures. The truth is that most fears possessed by individuals are likely self-imposed, and in fact rarely have a factual basis. There is an old axiom that states fear is an acronym for False Expectations Assumed Real. The reality is that most failures are simply stepping stones to future success. Get focused, harness your fears, leverage your fears, and take action. To your continued success…