How Does Your Fear of Failure Stop You

I started leading a new project this week. This one is different from projects I have lead in the past. I was nervous. I wanted to succeed but I did not know exactly what to expect. I could not anticipate how the project would turn out. Although I knew I had the skills to do the job, I questioned myself. As the clients entered the meeting room, my heart raced and my palms began to sweat. Mentally I made excuses as to why taking on this project was a bad idea. I planned how I would tell the clients why I was the wrong person to lead the project. I wanted to run away.

Then something in my consciousness clicked. I realized that I was afraid to fail. I was prepared to step out of leadership because of this fear. I was ready to quit before I started because I felt afraid. Quitting would have been the greatest failure of all.

I took a deep breath. I focused not on the fear but on the project at hand, deciding to give it my best effort. I told myself that if I did fail, it would not be because I had run away.

This experience reminded me of what it feels like to retreat in the face of failure. Client after client comes into my office wanting to make a change in life. One wants to start something new in his family, another wants to lead an innovative plan at work. They stop in fear of what might happen if their efforts fall short of their expectations. They step to the edges of their comfort zones, look out, and then hesitate when they see beyond that edge to the possibility of not succeeding.

We all do it. We tell ourselves we want something, but when it comes to taking action to achieve the goal, we stop. We are afraid of what failure might mean to our images, our security, and our livelihoods. As leaders, we tell ourselves that we have to look good, be strong, stay smart, and seem competent to the people we lead. We tell ourselves that failure will undermine our ability to lead.

In reality, failure is our greatest opportunity for growth and learning. We rarely step back and reflect on our successes the way we evaluate our failures. When we fail at something, we lick our wounds and we take time to think about the valuable lessons this disappointment can teach us. Like a child learning to ride a bike, we are one rotation of the pedals closer to riding on our own after each fall. Out of failure, we learn to do things differently, better, more successfully the next time we try.

Whether raising a family, leading a team or running an organization, we deprive the people we lead of their chance to grow when we protect them from failure. The parent eventually has to let go of the bicycle seat and let the child fall so he can learn to ride. It is our responsibility as leaders to set boundaries, to provide guidelines, and to do what we can to support people’s growth and success. Sometimes this means letting people fail in order to help them to grow.

What do you avoid doing because you are afraid you might fail? What is the risk associated with failing? What is the risk associated with continuing to avoid it? In what ways are you protecting someone else from failing? What does your protection cost that person?

I am interested in your thoughts and comments about this article. Is it helpful? Why? Why not?