Does fear of failure hold you back?

True story.  A few months ago I had a rather large speaking engagement.  It was with an audience larger than I usually speak in front of, with content I hadn’t delivered before.  The night before the conference I set the alarm for 6 am.  I was to meet the conference organizers at 7:30 am for an 8:30am start. Next thing I know it is 8:30am and I am just waking up.  First, I can’t find the shoes I’m supposed to wear.  Next, I can’t find my car keys.  When I find my car keys, my car has disappeared from the garage.  I can feel my heart about to jump out of my chest. Finally, I wake up and it’s 4 AM in the morning. Does this ever happen to you? It’s basic fear of failure. And for us to be more authentic leaders, we need to embrace our inner loser. Here’s why.

Fear of Failure and The Inner Loser

We all have an inner loser.  She lurks just underneath telling us we’re phony when we smile brightly and make small talk at cocktail parties. At least mine does that.  She reminds us of our greatest fears – of not being enough, of failing when the spotlight is on us.  The more I try to suppress her, the larger she becomes.

Our fear of failure is completely normal and served our ancestors well.  If our cavemen ancestors failed to notice the lioness stalking, they faced some dire consequences.  Our bodies have thus evolved to put ourselves in high alert when we detect threats.  The problem is that our brains haven’t evolved to distinguish between physical threats and threats to our self-esteem.  This state of threat inhibits our performance, creativity, productivity, empathy, and ability to collaborate with others.  That’s just great. Pass the Valium.

How Fear of Failure Undermines Authentic Leadership

The problem with failure is that we take ours very personally. The inner critic says, “Gosh, if I fail at this, it means that I mustn’t be good enough, and if I’m not good enough then no one will love me.” It comes from our basic survival mechanism as mammals where in order to survive, we needed to be loved and taken care of by others.  We all have a secret suspicion that we’re really losers and no one will love us if we let them see our inner loser.

This fear keeps us in “performance mode”.  It prevents us from letting our guard down with others.  The most self-assured and authentic leaders are not afraid to be vulnerable, to show their flaws, to share their failures.  That’s because they are already comfortable with their inner loser and know that their inner loser is part of the shared human experience, and in no way undermines their fundamental self-worth.

Leadership Practice – Embrace Your Inner Loser

A critical step to be more authentic in our leadership is to get comfortable with not being perfect.  Here is an exercise I’ve tried that helps me embrace my inner loser.  Get yourself a piece of paper and write down:

“I know that I am not perfect because (list past failure or “fatal flaw”), but I know I’m okay anyway because (list some things that are strengths, accomplishments etc).”

This exercise is a great one for giving ourselves a break. We may not be perfect but we can still be okay.  It takes the sting out of failure because we don’t attach failure to our basic worthiness.  Writing it down was hard for me.  Reading it out loud several times helped. Then saying it in front of someone else is the real challenge, but it gets easier with time.

Here are some examples of sentences I wrote for myself:

“That wasn’t the perfect coaching session because we didn’t accomplish our original objectives, but I am still okay because the client had a couple of big aha moments.”

“I’m not the best presenter because I didn’t have the best cadence or posture, but I am still okay because I connected with the audience – people came up to me to tell me how inspired they were by what I shared.”

Our authenticity is the source of our power

As we let go of the need to be perfect every time, we have less anxiety, take more risks, and start to see challenge as a learning opportunity vs. a proving opportunity.  We can also appreciate the complimentary skill sets of others while accepting their flaws.  As we get more comfortable in our own skin, we can help others be more comfortable in theirs.

Once we accept ourselves with our flaws, it doesn’t make us complacent. It actually helps us move forward with greater confidence.  Ironically, accepting ourselves just as we are is the greatest catalyst to our own growth.  Embracing our inner loser unleashes our inner superhero – because we are less afraid to just be ourselves.  Stepping into our authenticity is stepping into our real power.  Getting comfortable with our flaws is part of the journey of transformational leadership.

If this resonated for you, please comment, subscribe, and share with others.

Additional Resources:

Do You Want to Be Perfect or Do you Want to be Powerful?

Workshop on Authentic Personal Branding for your organization

Note: A version of this post first appeared on Todd Nielsen’s Blog as part of his 2nd Annual International Leadership Blogathon.

Showing 2 comments
  • Adrian

    I had a bit of an AHA moment today. How do you deal with people who trigger your “loser” feelings – either on purpose, by making snippy remarks, or just by giving you a subtle feeling of disrespect? It was so interesting, I was having lunch with some former co-workers in my building. I’ve known many of them for almost 20 years, but I’ve always had a somewhat “touchy” relationship with them, so I always tread very delicately around them and it always is just a little uncomfortable for me to be with them.

    Someone remarked that I was being “quiet” and it really surprised me. I am a flaming extrovert around nearly everyone else I know, but I realized that around this particular group of people, I tend to habitually shrink down into this quiet little mousy person I don’t even recognize. I thought about it and realized there are a few other people I do that with as well – people I perceive to be more successful, more intelligent, or more accomplished than myself, or people who just don’t seem to think highly of me – probably because I’ve never felt comfortable enough to show them the best part of myself.

    I’m sure other people have this experience as well – how do you shrug off that feeling of “less than” and get to a point where you can just be yourself around people like this? Or is it better to just avoid these people – maybe your subconscious is trying to protect your from some kind of a stumble if it turns out these people genuinely don’t respect or like you? I thought this might be an interesting topic for your blog.

    • Henna Inam

      Hi Adrian –

      What a great topic for the blog! You are right that there are people we feel more comfortable being ourselves around than others. So do we just avoid the others or is there a way to reclaim our authenticity around them? My view of this is that our “loser” feeling comes from something within us – – and that no one can make us feel inferior without our own consent.

      My recommendation would be for you to explore what these individuals trigger in you and how you can rise about that. Experiment with how you can not take their snippy remarks personally. Are there other perspectives you can explore around what’s eliciting their remarks? Are they themselves so insecure that they have to make others feel inferior for them to feel okay about themselves? What will it take for you to reclaim your own authenticity and return to your own center? Let our community know how this exploration goes because I’m sure that this is not a situation unique to you!

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