About six months after I stepped down from being CEO of a global company for nearly a decade, someone asked me how I was doing. I said the first thing that popped into my mind: “I am celebrating sleeping again.” It was true. I was sleeping at least eight hours a night for the first time in a very long time, and it felt very different. My burden of fearing failure was dramatically lowered with the absence of the responsibility that comes with being in that position.
On the other end of the spectrum, I was coaching another CEO. I asked him how he slept, and he answered, “I have always had no trouble sleeping. Frankly, I sleep like a baby.” Eventually his company stalled, and in short order, he decided to sell his business before its value totally collapsed.
Another client requested me to talk to a promising lieutenant who seemed de-energized and unmotivated. I asked the lieutenant how he slept, and he said: “Great.” In both this and the previous case, I was stunned at these individuals’ answers. I asked myself how they could not worry at night when they had such a responsibility to make things happen? Yet, looking back, I too, was always fearful that my subordinates were not worried enough!
It made me ponder why I felt my burden of the office was so heavy 24 hours a day. I was not frozen by fear but instead motivated by it. Was fear actually an important success driver? Why did it not have the opposite reaction by freezing me in my decision making?
Since my childhood, I feared failure. It manifested itself in worry and a resultant effort not to shame myself or my parents publicly. For example, I was an A or A- student and worried about getting Bs, not Ds or Fs. My parents expected high grades and for them, receiving Bs was not living up to my potential. Their standards eventually became my standards. In another example, my fear of waking up too late for an appointment and embarrassing myself has caused a habit of setting two wake-up alarms. That worry of falling short of my high standards carried through to my professional life and decreased my probability of failure. For many other successful executives, they have admitted the same phenomenon.
I would doubt if anyone knowing me in my career would describe me as fearful or apt to freeze when having to make decisions. At West Point, I was conditioned to make snap decisions in a combat environment that had life or death consequences. In business, I ended up believing that with disruptive technologies, accelerated half-life of strategies and global competition required constant innovative change. For fear of not surviving, I experimented with at least four to six change initiatives at any one time. Admittedly, these produced failed or sub-optimized results at least 30% of the time, but enough were home runs, doubles and triples to make up for the strike outs in overall production. But I never stopped being motivated by fear.
Staying with the baseball analogy, it takes me to the story about Babe Ruth after he struck out four times in a game early in his career. A sports reporter asked him, “What do you think about after you strike out?” His response was, “Hitting a home run.” Exactly, and later in his profession, the Great Bambino worried about why he didn’t hit a home run every time at the plate, which caused him to be obsessed with details relative to constant improvement. Babe Ruth’s home run per plate appearance improved throughout his career until age caught up with him.
For some, fear usually manifests hesitancy. It can be incapacitating. Concentrating on the consequences of failure is frightening. But by concentrating on the improvement for the quality of decisions or remedies, one can be motivated to work harder at making effective decisions and learning from mistakes.
For me, to make action-based decisions, I learned to control, mitigate and overcome fear. The critical job of a leader is to make decisions—and some of those decisions need to be bold. In today’s world, businesses that don’t take innovation risks will be replaced by those who do. You either grow or decay as there is no sustainability by standing still.
I am not a psychologist and I have no analytically based, professional theory, but I started to think pragmatically about the ways I used fear productively. Fear was productive for me because of the way I handled it.
One tactic I used was to keep a pad of paper and pen next to my bedside table with a small light. Nighttime always exacerbates emotions and puts you closer in touch with your gut instincts. As worries formed in my mind, I would write them down. These concerns would nag me for sleepless hours if I didn’t get them out of my head and on to paper. It became a habit. By morning, the list would have anywhere from five to 15 items! Early on, I had a hard time reading what I scribbled in the dark. For fun, the next morning I would ask my assistant to guess what several of the items were. As a result, my incredible executive assistant gave me the best birthday gift one year. I received a small handheld list holder where the battery powered light would turn on as you pulled the pen off the top. Now even I could read the notes the next morning!
Every day I would start by attacking that list, but I noticed that none of the items described the issue I was worried about. Instead, it was a list of action items to evaluate and/or gain information. There were also notes to explore what others more successful than me were doing to prevent the same issues, i.e. get advice. The fact that it was an action list was the key orientation to how I turned fear into constructive action. By carrying out the work necessary to scale, get facts and make the result of perceived failure relevant, this list allowed me to make decisions easier. It also caused me to engage others in mitigating my risks. It provided an action orientation.
Another constructive characteristic fear brought out in me was my deep interest in what others did better. Curiosity often is an attribute of the worried. I asked many questions for the sake of defensibly avoiding a mistake, as well as offensively to gain competitive advantage. My curiosity led me to find out not only about what company-mates and industry competitors did, but what leaders in other unassociated industries did.
Finally, I came to be self-confident by believing that any decision I made that was a mistake, could be subsequently fixed if I had first considered the potential consequences. The risk of no decision was higher than making the wrong decision.
Now taking the universal approach that “no mistake is fatal” is probably not the right mindset. There occurs ‘bet the farm’ decisions at times, and a leader’s ability to detect these instances is a key attribute for success. But information-driven self-confidence makes a huge impact on willingness to make risky decisions.
My conclusion is that constructive fear of failure has been an important ingredient for many. In my observation, the most successful leaders I have personally known are driven and successful by overcoming or handling fear well. Few admit that it is their secret sauce. On the other hand, fear can be non-constructive if it results in reluctant decision making. How to turn fear into a risk mitigation approach is a key attribute to optimization.
© 2018 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.