Fear is often cast as a bad thing, never to be fed or encouraged. But that is an oversimplification. Fear comes in many flavors, driven by its source. Some sources are healthy, some are illusionary and others are destructive. That’s right, some fears are quite healthy for your sense of balance.
Fear is the acknowledgement of a formidable threat and substantial stakes. If you don’t really think it can hurt you, you aren’t afraid. If it doesn’t matter, you can sluff it off as a casual concern. If you lack ANY fear, in many situations, you aren’t dealing with reality or you are overconfident. By recognizing the constructive fears, you’ll find proper direction.
For example, when consultants or journalists asked former Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle ‘what kept him up at night’ in 1999, he would reply, ‘two college kids in an apartment, tapping out code that will disrupt the industry.’ In other words, he feared irrelevance. It was a legitimate fear too, as Google was being hatched on the Stanford campus at that exact time.
On the other hand, I’ve worked for several CEOs that put more of their energy against the fear of failure. They worried that the proposed product might not sell well, giving them a black eye to investors. They worried that shifting to the new technology platform might lead to downtime, alienating legacy customers. Were these fears legit? In all situations, the greatest risk wasn’t a botched release or a short outage in services. It was competitive innovation.
The best way to manage fear in your life is to prioritize them by their legitimacy and urgency. The healthiest fear for a modern day business leader is obsolescence. As Koogle pointed out to me, “for every company that goes down due to a few bad product SKUs or sloppy accounting, there are nineteen that die a sudden death because their customers flee to the new-new thing.”
Takeaway: Your fear of getting lapped in the marketplace should be the one you pay attention to and lose sleep over. If you want to be a modern day innovator, your fear of obsolescence should be greater than your fear of failure.
What do you do with these fears? Face the worst case, and resolve to do better than it. Deploy resources to overcome its source (competitive innovation). Talk about it as a burning platform to your colleagues.
For more, watch this video clip from 2005 where I share Tim Koogle’s insights and the Paul Galvin story. “Do not fear mistakes. Wisdom comes from them!”