The Financial Crisis: How Leaders Face Fear and Find Courage

Last Updated Oct 17, 2008 10:01 AM EDT

When the Internet bubble burst, I was heavily invested in tech stocks. I lost much of my savings and my stock options weren't just underwater, they drowned. Twenty years of hard work, down the tubes.

I wasn't alone, but that was no consolation. I was devastated. I was angry with myself because I should have known better. I should have been more diversified and I shouldn't have listened to analysts I knew had serious conflicts of interest.
Then one day something happened. It started with a thought.

What's the worst that can happen? So I don't get to retire young. So I work until I drop. So what? I'm 44, a senior executive at the peak of my earning potential.
At that point I began to feel calm. Everything seemed simpler, somehow.

Yes, wine was involved. And a hot tub. What can I say; some reactions need a catalyst to work.

Anyway, I realized I'd been pushing myself too hard toward some arbitrary goal and forgotten that life happens day to day. I may have lost my shot at the goal, for a while, but life - the day to day - hadn't changed. I had gained perspective.

In the coming years I made back all I'd lost and more. Not in the stock market, but by working. Finding tough problems for my company and customers and solving them. Taking smart risks on good opportunities.

In so doing, I learned that, in times of crisis, businesses really need leaders to step up to the plate. But how do they do it? What makes certain people capable of gaining perspective and remaining steady when the chips are down? What gives them the courage to face their fear and anxiety, to put everything on the line and go for it?

I think it's primarily self-confidence. And that comes from years of striving and succeeding, years of struggling and failing, and the realization that they'll survive and grow from the experience either way.

What does all this mean for you and your business?

Well, did you happen to read The Crisis Facing Business the other day? Hopefully I don't mischaracterize Jeffrey Pfeffer's excellent post, but I took it to mean three things: 1) in a downturn, competitive markets are essentially zero-sum games - some will win and some will lose, 2) overreaction to crisis is inefficient and ineffective, and 3) solid, well-positioned companies focused on the right things will come out ahead in the long run.

Smart guy, that Pfeffer.

But let's not forget that businesses are run by people. Leaders are people. And, in times of crisis, people feel fear, confusion, anxiety and panic. This post is about how business leaders - effective and aspiring leaders - face crisis.

They may use words and catalysts, but beneath it all, there's a strong emotional foundation. If you have it in you (I know, sounds like an ad for Gatorade), you probably know it. If not, then you have three choices:

  1. Ignore your fear. I'm no shrink, but I can tell you this. Ignoring your feelings does not make them go away. They're still there and they will bite you in the ass eventually.
  2. Give in to fear. That's for the manic depressive businesses and leaders that Pfeffer talks about. In the zero-sum game that is global competition in a down market, those folks will lose.
  3. Face your fear. Feeling fear, facing it, and doing the right thing is called courage. Courage builds confidence and confidence builds leaders. Win, lose or draw this time, you'll survive and grow from the experience.
Last Word

Some mornings, I wake up feeling troubled and anxious, the gravity and uncertainty of the times weighing heavily upon me. Then I make a cappuccino, clear my head, and mull the challenges and opportunities at hand. I feel calm, courtesy of everything I went through to get there. And I get to work.