Leaders Have Fear, Too

Last Updated Oct 20, 2008 7:39 PM EDT

It's OK, even natural, for leaders to have fears. Not so OK for them to melt down in a puddle in the middle of an all-staff meeting, says leadership coach John Baldoni on his Leadership at Work blog on Harvard Business Publishing.

So what do executives do when they are fearful? Here is what Baldoni advises:

  1. Remain in control of personal feelings and show command of the group.
  2. Prepare by rolling out "what if" scenarios in your mind.
  3. Confide in a friend.
  4. Find an outlet to release your fear, such as exercise or community work.
  5. Make light of the situation.
And I'll tack on another piece of wisdom: Remember it could be worse. Your name is Ernest Shackleton and your ship Endurance has just become stuck in Antarctic pack ice and is breaking apart. You have no communication with the world, and your crew of 27 looks to you for leadership. What do you do?

It took Shackleton two years to lead his crew to safety in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. All survived. The Shackleton story is now used as a lesson in leadership at Harvard Business School. According to professor Nancy Koehn, who wrote the case, one lesson is that leaders should reassess goals when hard times descend.

"One thing Shackleton did very well was to revise, and reset, his objectives as the context changed," Koehn says. "As soon as that ship was frozen, he figured out that the goal of the enterprise -- and it was an enterprise, an organization -- was no longer to walk across the continent of Antarctica. The new goal was to survive. He was able to see that and keep that clearly in focus."

In the weakening economy, are your goals changing? How do you deal with fear?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.