Do top level executives fear failure, and if so, how do they handle it?
A few months ago, I was interviewed by a writer for Strategy + Business magazine on an interesting topic: Do top level executives fear failure, and if so, how do they handle it? Her first question to me asked, “From your perspective, how common is the fear of failure at this high level where executives have, obviously, had successful track records to reach the positions they are in today?” My simple answer was:
“This is more common than you may guess.”
Most executives have the fear of failure when a lot is at stake or when the collateral damage can be high. No one wants to be the cause of losing the biggest client, launching a product into the market that must be recalled, or shutting down a plant and displacing families because of incorrect market data.
The fear of failure lurks beneath the surface, causing us to test our courage muscle in smaller doses. This is the fear of not being all that you think you can be, or what you think others expect you to be.
When I became an entrepreneur just four years ago, it was a huge change. I no longer had financing. I no longer had resources. I no longer had someone else to make the final decision. Fear of Failure was a heavy yoke on my neck. Even though I, too, had a long record of career success, I had never done this before. I thought a lot about failure before I launched that first program in 2013. And though very successful for the first one, I could only think, “What if I was just lucky and can’t do it again?” Four years later, I still have fears. Fears of disappointing my employees is highest on that list.
It’s not always easy to overcome the fear of failure, but it is possible. We all face new challenges, and we attempt things we have never done before. Sometimes we need inspiration in the moment. When I headed to Washington D.C. for that first program, the radio was my inspiration, with the song from the band, America, and the refrain… “Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have.”
The fear of failure may pop up fewer times as we grow with experience, but it lurks there nonetheless. And it is very common. So when the writer asked me what I did to manage that fear, I had this to share.
Don’t overthink it: Life is full of firsts. Do you recall fearing failure when you tried to take your first steps? I am sure none of us remembers that. When we fell, we got up and tried again. We didn’t put up self-imposed hurdles, and we didn’t overthink it.
Use your posse: If you don’t have a set of personal advisors, then getting through challenges can be much harder. Having a posse of people that care about you and your success, that give you unadulterated advice, and that can provide a fresh perspective to the challenge at hand, creates a greater chance of success.
Practice self-care: No matter when you feel that angst of failure, making sure you take care of yourself is one of the best “medications” for this ailment. With good nutrition, fresh air, recovery time, and physical activity, your performance increases. Oftentimes, we need to “change our physiology in order to change our own psychology.” Taking a walk, moving locations, or seeking a friend’s voice on the phone can all help us pause, reflect, and recover.
The article in Business + Strategy did publish and came out last week. Please take a read.