Confronting Your Fear Of Failure

Make a big decision is daunting, but doing nothing can spell disaster. The key is to overcome your fear of failure.

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Make a big decision is daunting, but doing nothing can spell disaster. The key is to overcome your fear of failure.


Confronting Your Fear Of Failure

Make a big decision is daunting, but doing nothing can spell disaster. The key is to overcome your fear of failure.

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When I talk about the “F word”, some people assume that I’m telling people not to worry about failing. It’s true that we can’t rule out failure, because when we set out, we don’t know exactly what’s in front of us (and, even if we did, it’s constantly changing). I have had many failures, but I always got back up, and tried again.

But the F word that teams I work with must confront comes before that: it’s Fear. Commitment to lead change can be frightening, because we have decided to do things differently, to throw away the old certainties that hold us back, and to be different.

I often work with people who will never get as far as risking failure, because they are afraid to make the change – even if they know, deep inside, that might condemn them to a different type of failure: a slow, inevitable, unstoppable decline.

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes a simple experiment(1) that shows how we prefer to hang on to what we have. He gave a mug to half the participants in an experiment, and asked them to name a selling price.

The others, who hadn’t been given the mug, had to name a buying price. If the selling price matched the buying price, the deal was done. Surprisingly, buyers consistently offer amounts about half of what the sellers are willing to take. This effect is common across all sorts of similar experiments. When we have something, we instinctively value it more highly.

Kahneman compares this “loss aversion” to a baby clinging on to its toy. But it also makes us cling on to jobs we don’t like, ways of doing things that we could improve or business relationships that need to change.

To break out of a “loss aversion” mentality, we need to commit wholeheartedly to a new way of operating. Inspiring leadership means that when we commit, we commit fully, and immediately. We may be afraid, but we do it together as a team.

Fear of creative destruction

There’s a quote that you will often hear: “It is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”(2)

The people that trot out this quote are often good test cases: often businesses that I deal with are happy to talk about change, or put this quote in their presentations, but have become lost in fiddling with the business.

If you’re truly scared of heights, jumping off a box might seem more impressive to you than to anyone else. But it’s not a question of what seems impressive to you.

Sometimes we all have to jump out of the aeroplane. Businesses grow in stages, and what made you successful in the first stage probably won’t make you successful in the second or the third stage, because the world moves on. Technology changes. The law changes. Your competitive marketplace changes. Your customers’ expectations change.

We are accustomed to viewing these changes as a smooth process of adjustment. Joseph Schumpeter, (3) an Austrian economist who was active in the first half of the 20th century, was the first to disagree.

He saw a world in which businesses would innovate, and grow successful, and be copied by others, and gradually improved, and would all make money. Schumpeter was the first to realize how important the entrepreneurs were, because they created new, different ways to do the same thing. People who think

differently suddenly grab a part of the market because their products are cheaper, better or easier to use, and the businesses that became complacent cannot compete. They were growing slowly, but they fail quickly.

Schumpeter called this process “creative destruction”. It’s often used by technology companies, because it seems to fit the image of Silicon Valley, but it is just as relevant to other types of business, as long as there is some opportunity to change.

It can, however, be hard to drive this process from within. To do that, you first need to identify when you need to employ creative destruction. It can be hard to realize that the magic that got you to this point no longer works.

Fear of the first step

As an inspiring leader, you have to get your team to take that step, even though you’re just as afraid as they are. When I’m working with a new team, I will say to them: “Trust me. I’ve been here before. I’ve jumped out of this plane before, you’re not going to die.”

It is essential to make sure that everyone takes this step because, until they do, they will hold you back.

Once you are moving, the fear goes away, because you’re focusing on the journey, and you can learn to trust the process, because you’re on the inside of it – remember, we don’t jump without a clear vision of success, this is what helps us to stop obsessing about what we are leaving behind.

But this isn’t to say that everyone will feel comfortable. If it’s all under control, I’d argue that you’re not moving fast enough. Often we obsess about measuring every key performance indicator, compiling dashboards, using last year’s or last month’s accounts to measure how well we are doing.

Although the change you will create is exhaustively planned and managed (we will go into that in more detail later), you should be inspiring your team to become excited about the future, not about measuring history.

When you look forward to flying, you can start looking at your business in a different way. It’s easier to start looking at the scary places and think: “We could do something about that.”

On the other hand, this doesn’t happen easily. There are several common objections based on fear that you might have heard (or even made) in the past.


1. You can read about it in Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

2. Often attributed to Charles Darwin

3. Schumpeter had three ambitions, he claimed: to be the greatest lover in Vienna, the best horseman in Europe and the world’s greatest economist. He didn’t succeed, he added, only because of the decline of the cavalry.

This is an edited extract from Inspired Leadership: How You Can Achieve Extraordinary Results in Business, by Kevin Gaskell (Wiley, September 2017).

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Confronting Your Fear Of Failure

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