“Fear” and “Failure” are NOT dirty words, but you’ll find most leaders treat them as such. They go out of their way to hide their fears and explain away their failures rather than confront them and learn from them. One of my pet peeves is the current trend of labeling fear as a weakness and failure as unacceptable.

In fact, things have gone so far that the word failure is quickly being removed from our business vocabulary altogether. Failure has been hi-jacked by the politically correct and rebranded as challenge, obstacle, barrier, set-back, a miss, development opportunity, and any number of other watered-down substitutes. In today’s post I’ll examine the necessary and acceptable relationships between fear, risk, failure and success.

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 actually becomes their ally and not their adversary.

Show me someone who fears nothing and I’ll show you someone who lacks judgment. Show me someone who has fears but refuses to admit them and I’ll show you someone who has an issue with pride and arrogance. Fear doesn’t make you weak, nor does it mean that you lack in faith or ability, it just means you’re human. I learned long ago that fear is a warning sign that needs not to be ignored or hidden, but understood and addressed. I have fears and so do you, so why not bring them out into the light of day and deal with them. Trust me when I tell you that you’ll be better of for doing so – I am.

So, what’s the greatest fear possessed by leaders? It has been my experience that the greatest fear most professionals struggle with is the fear of failure. In fact, 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.

The same principles discussed above with regard to dealing with your fears also applies to topic of failure. Everyone reading this post has failed, and I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to have more failures in your future. Life will become much easier to navigate when you learn to accept failure as healthy and normal. From my perspective, when my life is void of failures I’m not growing, developing, stretching, or pushing. Put simply, if I’m not failing then I’m not trying. I’ve experienced lots of failures and I’m better for them.

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 have been printed in numerous publications over the years, and 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…

I’d love your thoughts and comments, and if you willing share a fear or failure and how you overcame them – maybe you’ll help someone who’s presently struggling with the same issue…

 

Image credit: Huffington Post