Why fear is dangerous for business leaders during a crisis

In recent months during the active Covid-19 pandemic we’ve seen leaders who are able to stay cool and calm in the face of threats, and those who have derailed. The difference is how they handle fear – both their own, and that of their team and organisation, as Karlin Sloan explains

The only thing to fear is fear itself’ – Franklin D Roosevelt

Fear is an adaptive response that is designed to protect us from danger. It’s our emotional warning system that something is a threat, and shifts us into survival mode, pumping adrenaline and shifting our brain capacity from our executive functioning into our midbrain where we make split-second decisions of how to respond to threat. When the amygdala determines there’s an immediate threat, our physiology goes into fight or flight response. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Focus refers to this as the ‘amygdala hijack’.

When we experience a fight, flight, or freeze response our adrenaline, cortisol, and blood pressure rise to help us meet a situation our body perceives as putting us in critical danger. This response is hardwired evolutionary adaptation that can serve us well when we are under immediate physical threat. It’s the part of us that slams on the breaks when we see a car suddenly stop in front of us, or that runs when an animal attacks. It’s also something that can sabotage our best thinking, decision making, and capacity to innovate during challenging times.

Why is fear so dangerous?

Think of a time when you experienced your own fear or anxiety. Was your natural response to freeze, to fight, or to run?

You might remember feeling short of breath, your heart racing, becoming tense and ready to react quickly. We all have reactive patterns that protect us from immediate physical danger, but ultimately don’t make for trustworthy and strong leadership and management.

A leader operating from the freeze response may have ‘analysis paralysis’ and not want to make critical decisions. To fight as a leader may look like defensiveness, losing control emotionally and snapping at others who are on the same team. To flee (the ‘flight’ response) might mean literally leaving the organisation or their role, or distancing from responsibility instead of recognising the importance of stepping up. These fear based behaviors are damaging not just to your reputation, but to the whole of the business.

It is in the most stressful moments that leaders are most important. In a crisis, others look to you for answers, for a calm mind and a strong perspective. They want to hear that they’re part of something larger than themselves, that you’ve got their back, that we’re all for one and one for all, and that we will help each other get through the crisis and potentially become stronger for it.

Crisis Leadership requires us to adopt two important perspectives that depend upon our transcending our fear response:

1Strategic mindset (focus on preserving the positive core of your organisation while stimulating progress). Excellence in strategic business leadership means long-term value creation versus just survival, and requires us to explore possibilities not just react to the present moment.

2Focus on employee engagement, productivity, and wellbeing in order to move through the crisis and come out the other side. Excellence in leading people depends upon our ability to engage our teams in feeling part of something larger than themselves.

Overriding Fear

‘I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.’ – Frank Herbert

A strategic mindset is impossible when we are in fight, flight or freeze, as literally our brain chemistry takes our capacity for reasoning away and ‘hijacks’ the body to respond to danger. When we are overwhelmed with the crisis of the moment it’s tempting to stick with addressing what’s right in front of us, rather than asking strategic questions. Strategic thinking starts with inquiry. Why are we doing what we’re doing? What are the ramifications of the trajectory we are on? What scenarios should we explore? What is possible?

A focus on employee engagement, productivity, and wellbeing requires us to activate our empathy and emotional intelligence, which are only available to us when we are out of the fight or flight reaction.

So how do we shift from reactivity based on fear to our most powerful strategic and empathic leadership? Psychologist Dr Herbert Benson pioneered the idea that the fight or flight response can be disengaged by another opposing hardwired process he called the Relaxation Response. There are any number of ways to activate that response – focusing on the breath, visualisation, meditation, stretching, tai chi or other exercise. The easiest way to activate that response is to sit quietly and breathe, letting your mind and body re-focus on the simple act of breathing in and out. Envision your muscles relaxing, and breathe through your nose. You can have your eyes closed or open, but focus on the breath for at least five minutes. Breathe easily and naturally. There is nothing to accomplish, just sit. When we are in a state of hyper-alertness and reactivity, it can be as simple as taking a five minute break to reset yourself. Once your body is calmed and your adrenaline has stopped flooding, you can shift your attention to asking yourself questions. How do we turn the lead of our circumstances into the gold of the future? What impact am I having and is it the impact I want to have?

What’s Possible?

When things break down, the opportunity when we transcend fear is to build something healthier, better, more innovative, more sustainable, more generative. As a leader, you are the instrument of organisational success. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.

Karlin Sloan is the CEO of Sloan Group International and the author of new book Inspiring Leadership for Uncertain Times

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