Why great leaders embrace fear

'The leader who is not afraid should be'

Sam Bernstein, senior writer

Many people who take on new roles and responsibilities experience a similar pattern of emotions. First, they're excited for the new opportunity—but that quickly gives way to anxiety, especially if they don't think they have the skills or experience needed to succeed.

Rebecca Knight talked to several experts for Harvard Business Review about how leaders can "fake it 'til they make it," and many of the recommendations focused on overcoming fears and "pretending to yourself that you're confident."

However, Mike Wagner, an executive director with the Advisory Board's International Leadership Development team, urges leaders to embrace the natural fears they're experiencing, even as they "fake it."

"The leader who is not afraid should be," Wagner says.

"One of the most common mistakes that leaders make is to become overconfident; to think they know the answer and to become resistant to the concept that they might be wrong," he says.

"As a leader, your job is to support, learn, and encourage," Wagner explains. So don't let go of your discomfort—instead, harness it to "establish a discipline of skepticism about yourself." Then, act on that skepticism by reaching out to others in your organization.

Also see: Cultivate academic leaders

"New leaders should look to immediately unleash the power of their team," Wagner says. "Although you always want to honor the traditions and the successes of the past, a new leader has the opportunity to dramatically change course for the organization and to set bold, new goals."

To do that, leaders should ask team members what they have long wanted to change or accomplish, Wagner says. "Ask your team for their true opinions, listen to their concerns, take the advice they offer to heart, and then improve your decision-making by incorporating the wisdom and the insights of your entire team into the actions you take."

Preparing for the future

That open-mindedness is key to being a successful leader no matter your tenure. "Leaders who have been in their jobs for a long amount of time often become too comfortable and overconfident," Wagner says. 

That can not only lead to missed opportunities in their current roles, but also make them less prepared for future ones. "Too many leaders focus on building skills that they need today and they neglect preparing for their next role," Wagner notes.

To fix that problem, he says professionals should practice the idea of "Job Elimination": that is, systematically assigning their own current job responsibilities to other staff members. Delegating your responsibilities will both prepare staffers for future promotions and free up more of your time.

"You should give that free time to your boss," Wagner says, "by asking for additional responsibility and learning new skills that benefit the larger organization long before a promotion ever comes your way. Then, when the promotion does come, you're already prepared."

Read this next: How university leaders managed the change to a new academic advising strategy


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