Conquering the ultimate four-letter word — fear

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We’ve all been there. Heart racing. Palms drenched in sweat. Face flushed with heat. Tongue thick and dry as sandpaper and our mind firing with dread.


I can’t do it. I’m not good enough. They won’t like it. I will fail. Doubt creeps in and creativity and innovation are thwarted.

I recently reflected on my first big fear: Learning to ride my bike. The thought of hitting the concrete was overwhelming, and the pavement did rise up to greet me several times. But I never gave up. Because my desire to join the “kids without training wheels” was greater than my fear.

Other playground successes soon followed: four square, track and three-legged races. My 10-year old self was badass! I realized I could do most anything I put my mind to.

Then came Becky

Then Becky moved to town. Becky was taller and prettier, or she seemed at the time. Worst of all, she could Double Dutch, and I, alas, could not.

The old four-letter word fear was pounding louder and louder. I practiced daily in my floral print pedal pushers and lucky Red Ball Jets. Surely this hard work would pay off. Every day, I would try to skip into the center of the action and be a star.

The ropes were more than just a playground game. Everyone knew it represented the great racial divide. My black girlfriends were good at it. I could feel them looking at me saying, “Come on girl, you can do this!” My white girlfriends were saying, Surely, you can do this.”

The words were nuanced, but the expectations were tremendous. It’s when I learned to “sit-on-the-fence” to negotiate both worlds. It would be years later — when Stevie Wonder sang, “Just make sure when you say you’re in it, but not of it” — that I found the words to describe how I truly felt.

It was about this time, in the summer of ’68, when I had my first “coach.” She observed my technique and watched my rope turners. She validated me by my praising my efforts, my tenacity and my right to fail.

Turning fear into opportunity

I thought about this recently as I read the May 2016 Harvard Business Review cover article, “Increasing Your Return on Failure.” The story cites a 2015 Boston Consulting Group study that shows 31 percent of respondents list fear of failing and a risk-averse culture as obstacles to innovation.

Today companies are learning to celebrate failure while devising surveys, metrics and feedback loops to increase shared learning.

Failure is painful no matter how you view it, and it can increase fear of trying. But as the article states, failure is less painful when you extract maximum value from it. I vote for eradicating the fear word and replacing it with opportunity!

The key lies in creating a work culture that values empathy, agility and cultural sensitivity. These are important factors in attracting highly creative millennial leaders.

Like the events I just shared, everyone comes to work with a story, a lens by which they filter the decisions, actions and beliefs that shape their leadership styles.

If you really want to unleash innovation, get to know your people. Use coaching to increase the emotional intelligence of your leaders. Shift their consciousness levels to use positive anabolic reactions to all opportunities — even those that don’t produce immediate success.

There is a process to living your life, and each person has the responsibility and fortune to pick her own path. I wish I could say that I mastered Double Dutch, but I never did.

What I did learn is to move on and create my own stage for success. To not be defined by others’ expectations. And most importantly, to recognize that success lies in teamwork — no person does it alone!

There will be many things in life that I will not master, but it won’t be because of fear.

Blog Author Bio

Cecilia Carter, The Strategy Chick, offers executive and transition coaching. During her 35-year corporate career, she served in senior leadership at PepsiCo Inc., Starbucks, UBS and General Electric.

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