How to Handle Fear as a New Leader in Challenging Times

Jul 01, 2020 6 Min Read
Fear: A Part of Leadership

Landing your first role as a leader can be daunting in the best of times. It’s an exciting opportunity to take a team or an organisation in a new direction, and leadership is a role where you have to hit the ground running. There’s an expectation (not least of all from yourself) to show what you can do. As we head into the second half of 2020, we are just beginning to get a handle on the health crisis that hit the world earlier this year. There is still a number of challenges and obstacles to navigate and uncertainties to understand and overcome.

Covid-19 has left economies, organisations and people’s livelihoods in a precarious state as we collectively try to figure out the way forward, one move at a time. It’s understandable, then, that a new leader might be fearful of stepping into a big role at a time when big visions and bold decisions are the dish of the day. The phrase ‘thrown in at the deep end’ comes to mind. And yet, while finding yourself in a leadership position for the first time can be a formidable task, it’s also a wonderful opportunity to grow and learn in ways other leaders miss out on in ‘normal’ times.

For example, I know leaders who, prior to the health crisis, had no idea what Zoom was, let alone how to use it. The notion of creating a podcast, taking part in a Facebook Live event, or hosting a training webinar simply wasn’t on their radar.

Read More: How To Keep Your Team Engaged and Innovative Through L&D

Three months later, we’ve all been compelled to embrace these means of communication and become familiar with them – working from home, there’s no choice. So, we’ve had to adapt and overcome previous doubts and fears that, otherwise, would have been left to a more convenient time (i.e. the not-so-near future). Fear will always be a part of leadership, given that it’s been a basic driving emotion for modern humans throughout our history. Like every other emotion, fear serves an evolutionary purpose: it helps us survive, make sense of the world, and make progress. With this in mind, the trick isn’t so much to overcome fear but to harness the emotion and use it to our advantage.

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Fear becomes a problem only when we let it get out of control. Just as fire has several uses, it’s dangerous when it becomes excessive. Fear is the same. It can drive and motivate us so long as we use it in the right way (without it, we’d likely find ourselves in more risky situations). As a new leader, you have to learn to regulate yourself if you hope to regulate other people and situations.

Here are some tips you can apply that will help you deal with fear in a way that it serves you without paralysing you. Often, we see fear as a negative emotion, as something to get rid of, which, ironically, only increases its hold over us. On that note, let’s jump into those tips:

1. Accept that fear is a natural response

In any crisis, even seasoned leaders will feel a degree of fear, whether they show it or not. It makes sense, as an emotion, fear makes us alert to challenges and reminds us of the importance of what we’re up against. So far, in 2020, we’ve all found ourselves facing several challenges. The advice to ‘overcome your fear’ applies when fear becomes debilitating – “Don’t let it hold you back” – but a healthy dose of it can be beneficial and drive us toward successful outcomes. As a result, we grow more confident and resilient as leaders as we learn to use our fear, rather than be consumed by it.

2. Avoid catastrophising – see the bigger picture

As a new leader, you might have thoughts that sound like the following: “What if I make the wrong decision? That will affect the project and then the project might fail, and then my team will lose faith in me and productivity will plummet. I’ll get called up in front of the boss and probably lose my job and then word will get around and I’ll never be respected as a leader.”

In just a few words, the mind takes us from making the wrong decision to losing all credibility. All leaders get decisions wrong on occasion – none of us is free from that reality. The key is how you respond to setbacks. You can dwell on your mistakes and spiral into fear, or you can learn from what went wrong and how you can rectify the situation, and do better next time. It’s in our failures that we learn, grow, adapt, and thrive…but only if we frame them as opportunities to learn.

3. Emulate…but never compare

When we land our first leadership role, it’s helpful to look to a leader that we admire and ask ourselves, “What qualities do they possess that took them to where they are today? How can I integrate their example with my own style?” Emulating people we admire allows us to have a sense early on of the kind of leader we want to be as we develop our own style and approach.

The pitfall to avoid is making comparisons – especially on social media. Everywhere you look, there will be ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’ and leaders showing off in all sorts of ways, but remember that social media is a controlled snapshot of what people choose to show. Focus on your own development, let others take care of theirs. Keep your mind on where you are and where you want to go, not on where you ‘should’ be.

Read More: New Leaders: Avoid These 6 Common Pitfalls

4. Take leisure time seriously

I know, I know – it’s fashionable to talk about working 70-to-100-hour weeks, staying ahead of the competition and keeping your edge as a leader. We might look to leaders like Elon Musk and the late Steve Jobs and be inspired by their drive and determination. They are, to be sure, exceptional people, and that’s the keyword – exceptional. Most of us, if we don’t get enough rest and leisure time, see our performance and general well-being dip, not improve.

Leaders who are sleep deprived tend to be ‘more impatient, irritable, and antagonistic’, whereas those who take time out to enjoy life and get regular exercise improve their cognitive function, leading to better decision-making, problem-solving, and the ability to connect well with others. Leadership is a rewarding role, but it’s also stressful. You owe it to yourself, and the people you lead, to get a life outside work.

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at


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