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Why Fear is a Good Thing

by Deirdre Maloney

I’ve come to believe that our most powerful lessons come when we figure out something we believe with absolute conviction…turns out to be dead wrong. Happens to me all the time.

As evidence, I present a simple tale. It led to one of the most valuable lessons of my career. And, unlike other lessons learned from mistakes, it made me feel a whole lot better about things.


A Story About Fear

It happened when I recently met with a well-known CEO, one who runs a multi-million dollar technology company. He’s one of those leaders. The kind we all strive to be.

He’s confident, smart, makes great decisions. He gets listened to. The rest of us love to watch him in action and in meetings as he speaks up, offers relevant opinions and everyone else takes notice.

He appears to be fearless.

I met with him one-on-one to write up a brief history of his company, which is when he spilled the beans. The truth?

When he first got the position he was nervous. Having never worked for a technology company, he now found he would run one. Sure, he knew how to manage. How to lead. How to inspire staff. But he didn’t have a keen sense of the products the company offered.

In the beginning, he was afraid of messing up and looking bad. Makes sense.

But here’s the thing. Today, years later? He’s still afraid.

He’s afraid of messing up. He’s afraid of making a decision that spins out of control. He’s afraid of costing the company millions, of negatively impacting stakeholders. He’s afraid of losing the company’s edge.

Ever since this seemingly simple dialogue, which shocked me, I’ve paid attention to other great leaders. Here’s where it gets even better.

He is not alone. In fact, he is just one example of this important lesson. It’s an especially important one for men, who have the additional pressure of stereotypes where fear might be seen as weakness.

What Does This Mean For You?

The lesson: every single person, no matter who they are, no matter what they say to you, no matter what you believe about them…is afraid.

The biggest difference between great leaders and everyone else?

They act anyway. They know they might actually fail or look silly. But they also know they have what it takes to handle it. They know the world won’t end. They know they’ll have a better day tomorrow.

And so they move forward, despite their fear – while so many others cower in the corner when it comes to making even the most calculated decisions.

We are all afraid.

  • We are afraid of failing
  • We are afraid of making a mistake.
  • We are afraid of looking silly.

We are all afraid.

  • We are afraid of not being liked.
  • We are afraid of being bad parents.
  • We are afraid of losing our jobs.

We are each afraid of some of these things…perhaps all of them…and plenty of other things, too.

I can say this with certainty because I’ve been surrounded by some of the most successful, professional, self-assured people. Each time, when I’ve truly gotten to know them, truly understood them, I learned that they are just as afraid as the rest of us.

The best part?

Being afraid is a good thing. It keeps us on our toes. It drives us to do things better.  It makes us think through our work more strategically, our words more carefully, our actions more meaningfully.

The most confident ones are the ones who know they are afraid, who know they will make mistakes and who do their thing anyway, every day, as best as they possibly can.

The less confident ones, ironically, are the ones who spend their time trying to convince you that they are not afraid of anything. It’s not real.

So take heart. Take a stand. Take a calculated risk.

Feel the fear. Act anyway.

And watch everyone else take notice.


Deirdre MaloneyDeirdre Maloney is a published author, national speaker, and proud president of Momentum, which helps organizations meet their mission and helps their leaders sleep better at night. Her presentations, blogs, and books, Tough Truths and The Mission Myth, all feature Deirdre’s provocative brand of mild audacity.

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Alice November 9, 2012 - 11:58 pm

I love this! The visual of myself cowering in a corner fretting to make a single decision for fear of failure was not a pretty sight. I agree with you that you must “Act” regardless of the fears that exist internally. I definitely needed to read this and I thank you for the insight. Fear is a powerful thing and most likely permanent as fear will always exist within us on some level however it does not have to be paralyzing.

oddlycommon November 9, 2012 - 3:56 am

I really enjoyed this article It really makes a lot of sense the usual suggested approach is to not be afraid, most articles i’ve read pertaining to fear gave me the impression that you had to be fearless to conquer and I always thought that too be completly fearless was impossible and borderline insane. After reading this im inspired to carry on inspite of fear!!! Im ready for my next challenge! Bring it on..

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