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How Can I Express My Fears as a Leader? | Having the Tough Conversations

Having the Tough Conversations

with Lisa Greene, LPC, CACII

“Dear Lisa,

How can I be honest with my team about my fears as a leader, without passing my fears onto them too?”

Let’s face it, the past 2 years have brought about a lot of change, and for many leaders that means an increase in stress, anxiety, and other challenging emotions like fear. 

It can be difficult to navigate these feelings, and even more so when you are in a leadership role. The ability to manage and display emotions is critical when building trust, getting people moving toward a goal, and focusing on collective visions. It’s vital in healthy relationships (including those between a leader and team member) to disclose fear in ways that normalize it, without giving up on seeking solutions.

(If you want to dig deeper, understanding your leadership style may give you insight into how you can most naturally show up to activate your team and others toward the vision and goals of your organization — even in the midst of uncertainty.)

The initiative to lead during challenging times calls one to “lean into” a set of characteristics and leadership qualities. For the purpose of this blog we will focus on the following three qualities for leadership: empathy, self awareness, and courage. These 3 leadership qualities can help you create the space for yourself to be authentic about your fears (without dropping them roughly on others as a burden to hold), thus inviting others to do the same.

 

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” or perhaps into their chair. This quality is critical for leaders as we navigate our own experience and guide others.

As we forge this fresh path of leading with empathy in today’s context, leaders and their teams are showing up with often the same fears. Empathetic leaders strive to create a workplace culture that allows them to truly understand the challenges facing their team, which in turn builds the types of connections that allow them to also lean on their team for strength.

It’s important to first practice this vulnerable sharing within the leadership team. In turn, this openness spreads out to all members of the organization.

76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged, compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy.

Study by Catalyst

Empathy doesn’t make a leader “soft,” it makes them relatable and emotionally accessible. Leaders who are able to connect on a shared human level with their team experience increased productivity and employee morale. By naming their own (ideally somewhat processed) emotional challenges to their team, leaders are able to fully meet their team members where each person is, allowing for a more natural, inclusive, comforting and inventive work culture.

🗣️ Here’s an example of leading from a place of empathy around shared fears:

“I know you’re feeling hesitant to return to working in person. Your family is your #1 priority, and I really relate with you on that. Can we sit down and unpack our thoughts to find a way to support each other in this situation?”

 

Self-awareness

Leaders who have done some introspective “I” work (as we call it at LTHJ Global) are better able to identify where they are with their emotions. It is normal to feel fear; where we can often make things more problematic is in our response. Leaders who understand this are able to compassionately identify their own feelings, then work on prosocial responses that don’t negatively impact their team members.

It’s helpful for leaders to know how they tend to manage fearful times. Do you freeze, self-isolate, or lash out for a sense of control? Do you instinctively turn to venting, or to avoiding everything altogether?

When leaders are able to show up fully aware of their impulses, and their individual agency to choose a healthy response, they give permission for their team to do the same. 

🗣️ For example:

“I’m feeling anxious about possible changes coming our way. I can notice myself wanting to silo off and keep my concerns to myself, and I’m working to open up more honestly about them. How are you managing the uncertainty?”

Courage

It is often said that the opposite of fear is courage. Perhaps, though, fear is not the opposite of courage; rather, the first requirement.

Fear is simply a natural part of life. Courage is not only the ability to show up, stand up and engage, but also the ability to not overlook the obvious: sometimes, naming fear is the first step to being able to intentionally respond.

Courageous leaders are exciting to work with, as they show up in ways that inspire others by stepping beyond their fears to keep everyone focused on the bigger picture — the real mission of their organization. A courageous leader can acknowledge their own (and their team’s) fears, and keep moving forward without repressing those fears. They are able to take everyone’s fear along for the ride.

🗣️ How can this manifest in practice? Here’s an example:

“To be honest, I’m feeling fearful about some of the new DEIA initiatives that are being implemented, but I’m up for the challenge. I’m ready to show up and be present, knowing that it is in the best interest of our organization and our whole community.”


The Bottom Line

Don’t let fear stop you from showing up in your full, messy, creative humanity for your team, or from welcoming theirs.

One of the biggest benefits of being able to model effective ways of managing challenging emotions is that you can show your team that those emotions, even fear, are normal, and that there are honest and respectful ways to manage them in the workplace.

Of course as you said, the goal is not to pass your fears onto your team. By processing them enough first yourself, you can share your fears in a healthy way that invites honest conversation without putting the burden of “solving” your fears onto those you lead.

Even if we weren’t trying to navigate work in the context of an evolving global disruption, fear is a normal emotion. Congratulations for asking this question, and for striving to foster a space where leaders like you show up authentically and invite their team to do the same. 

Editor’s note: If you’re seeking a safe space for revolutionary leaders to discuss topics like fear, courage, and equity in leadership, we recommend LTHJ Global’s free monthly Leadership Roundtable.

Have a tough conversation you want Lisa’s expertise on? 

Submit any questions to: LisaG@Lthjglobal.com.