It is not failure itself that holds you back; it is the FEAR OF FAILURE that paralyzes you. 

– Brian Tracy –

I admire Brian Tracy for his words of wisdom. His choice of the word ‘paralyze’ physically and emotionally describes the stage where the Fear of failure sometimes takes control, giving us no choice or any sensible option. I, however, don’t fully agree with this insight. 

The Fear of failure isn’t all bad. Its presence can be a huge motivation for us to mobilize our team’s strengths and spirit to work on an important project, to ensure each team member be truly inspired by our project brief, and to reach out and engage our external and internal strategic partners to brainstorm contingency plans for all possible risks. Successes come with trust and love by all key stakeholders definitely has the role of our friend Fear of failure. 

The Fear of failure, however, can become our enemy when it paralyzes us, making both us and people around us suffer. 

It is when we start believing that only we ourselves are capable of delivering important projects. Then gradually with the daily whisper of the Fear of failure, all projects become ‘important’, placing our team members in invisibly minor roles in contributing to the business, regardless of how senior or experienced they are.

It is when we feel a huge pressure in making decisions regardless of how small it is. More and more workload is put on our shoulders because every single detail demands our attention, from polishing a presentation to a boss visit to thinking about the agenda to entertain him or her at lunchtime. Our team members seem to become less and less trusted for handling their normal duties and we don’t know why. 

It is when we try to plan everything in advance but waking up in the morning with a constant worry about changes in our organization and uncertainty in the world. We, as a result, easily lose temper when things go awry and quite often we are scared of not being able to predict the future. 

Sometimes we worry because there is nothing to worry about (I kid you not). 

So what to do when we become ‘addicted’ to the Fear of failure?

Telling ourselves “Be brave and live life fearlessly”? It doesn’t work that way because our brain isn’t easy to be tricked. 

Force ourselves to work harder to cover all important work? With perfectly good health conditions, maybe you can but for the short term. Soon all work falls into the ‘important’ basket, giving you no choice but staying awake all night to finish them yourself. The worst part, however, is the loss of enthusiasm and passion of your team members given the lack of motivation for doing meaningful work. The nightmare eventually comes when they reach the stage where they don’t even care about where you are heading. 

Try to plan everything ahead? Unfortunately, we are living in a VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) where uncertainty is the only thing certain. Also the more you plan, the more you make your belief ‘I am not capable of handling unexpected events’ stronger. 

FACING the Fear of failure by UNEARTHING the BELIEFS which are nurturing your fear, taking steps to VALIDATE all those LIMITING BELIEFS, and designing action plans to BUILD NEW USEFUL BELIEFS is a sustainable approach to build up COURAGE and free yourself from the downside of the Fear of failure 

Ten years ago I was nominated to conduct a study of my country’s culture and values. The importance of the project was stressed not only for Vietnam but the whole SEA region to understand SEA people at a holistic view, that had taken a few months for extensive desk research, key stakeholder interviews, intensive brainstorming sessions and countless rehearsals with senior boss within our department. 

The presentation on the study outcome to the VIP guests, including the local company Chairman, Directors, Vice Presidents, regional and global Marketing and CMI Directors traveling from their hubs (the golden days when travel budget was still plenty ^^ ) was a huge success. 

The interesting fact was that I was the most junior manager in the team at that time yet my boss decided to take the risk and gave me the chance to shine. That was the act of COURAGE that conquered the Fear of failure. 

The COURAGE to conquer the Fear of failure doesn’t guarantee you a life full of successes and glories (Obviously my boss never knew if the presentation was a certain success). What it guarantees you is a life with confidence. But it is not just the confidence that empowers you to delegate important projects to your team members, or the confidence when you make the right decision. It is the CERTAINTY FROM WITHIN that even though your decision is wrong, or your team members fail, you are capable of handling the mess. 

In short, it is the certainty that you can handle whatever the VUCA world throws at you. 

A few questions for your reflection:

  1. What are the benefits of the Fear of failure in your leadership?
  2. What are its detrimental impacts on your leadership?
  3. Are you ready for the journey of freeing yourself from the Fear of failure?

Written by Thao Pham

ICF Professional Certified Coach