The Japanese have a well-known saying - 案ずるより産むが易し, or “Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it”. The Buddha felt similarly, offering “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear”. What role does fear play in leadership? Given we all at times experience fear, doubt and anxiety, are we precluded then from developing into successful leaders?
In Suo’s Shall We Dance, both Mr. Sugiyama, Mai and Mr Aoki are paralysed by fear. The fear of judgment, exposure and arguably, their own success. Sugiyama’s yearning reaches a tipping point such that he cannot but get off the train and move into the unknown. These initial steps liberate not only his own fears, but those of his friends and family. Both his own and the lives around him are transformed by his courage. By deeds, not words, he shows others that despite his fear, he is able to change tracks. The overwhelming theme explored by the movie is the restorative powers of vulnerability and of letting go (Brown, 2010).
Fear is a very real phenomenon. The brain mechanism responsible for its creation is unconscious and automatic (LeDoux, 1996), similar to our heartbeat, for example (Rosen & Schulkin, 1998). Fear therefore affects us all – leaders too. Heifetz (1994) maintains that leadership is about mobilising people to face challenges, the uncertainty around which almost certainly involves fear (Larsen, Øgaard, & Marnburg, 2005). The role of fear in leadership then is as a catalyst. Focus on the problem and take action, or focus on the fear and freeze (Witte, 1992).
To experience the emotion of fear is a natural and inevitable consequence of being a human being. Leadership is inextricably linked with meeting, experiencing and taking action in the face of fear. The key it seems is the decision made subsequent to feeling the fear. Sugiyama had many reasons to be frozen by fear; social, cultural and emotional. Despite this, he took action and allowed himself to be vulnerable, building strong trust and deep empathy in those around him as a consequence (Bunker, 1997). If leaders allow fear to dictate a state of inaction or indecision, the consequences are pervasive not only for themselves, but for those around them – those they may wish to inspire into action.
Brown, B. (2010, June). The Power of Vulnerability (video webcast). Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html
Bunker, K. A. (1997). The power of vulnerability in contemporary leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 49 (2), 122–136.
Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Larsen, S., Øgaard, T., & Marnburg, E. (2005). Worries in restaurant managers. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 46(1), 91–96
LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Rosen, J. B., & Schulkin, J. (1998). From normal fear to pathological anxiety. Psychological Review, 105(2), 325–350.
Witte, K. (1992). Putting the fear back into fear appeals: The extended parallel process model. Communication Monographs, 59(4), 329–349.