When you think of a “fearless leader,” you may conjure up images of the cartoon leader of that nickname from the 1950s cartoon The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. Perhaps you think of some current real-life dictators who could also fit the bill. Yet, in my opinion, the stereotypical “fearless leader” is a bit of a misnomer.
Here’s why: My definition of “fearless” is less about being a tyrant and demanding that everything and everyone do precisely as you say and more about taking chances and going against the grain. It’s about doing what isn’t expected of you and going above and beyond in your own personal and professional life to do what’s right. A fearless leader is authentic and honest, even when things might be a bit messy.
In that spirit, I’ve collected five quotations from a very wide variety of thought leaders who inspire me to be a fearless leader every day. I hope they’ll inspire you, too.
Understanding Fear as a Leader
But before we dig into the inspirational quotations, let’s look at fear. We are all human, and at our very core, we are wired to feel fear. Our central nervous system constantly scans our surroundings for anything that could possibly be construed as threatening. If you’ve ever walked into a darkened room and jumped at the sight of a coiled power cord in the corner, you know exactly what I am talking about. Your “lizard brain” thinks the cord is a snake and immediately douses your system with numerous chemicals that shift you into fight, flight, or freeze mode; only after this point does your logical brain take over and tell you to calm down because it’s really just the cord to the lamp and not a deadly animal out to get you. The next morning when you tell the story, it’s highly likely that you’ll laugh over it.
It’s essential to recognize that the same kind of fear instinct exists in the workplace, too. The threat of losing a job or being chastised for making a mistake can feel as deadly as a potentially poisonous snake. The fear of looking like a fool in front of your colleagues or showing too much emotion when things are challenging or difficult can debilitate us. Whatever you fear, your coworkers, reports, and colleagues likely feel the same way. In contrast to the power cord example, your fear may eventually rear its ugly head and cause some heat-of-the-moment outburst, and it could take months or years to laugh over it when you retell that story.
As a manager or leader in a company, you likely show your fear—although you think you’re doing a fantastic job of managing it and even hiding it from your peers and your reports—by yelling at someone or doing something rash in the heat of the moment. This is probably where the stereotype of the fearless leader comes from: the raving, insistent, irrational, cruel yet ineffective dictator railing at a world that just won’t bend to their will.
In addition to considering how you show your own fear, it’s essential to recognize how your reports show their fear. Depending on the power dynamic, their fear could show up in a wide variety of behaviors and ways. Perhaps employees become withdrawn or stop showing up at work. Maybe they are suddenly late all the time or opting out of social events that they’d usually attend. No matter how their fear is showing up, it’s vital to recognize it for what it truly is—a natural human response to perceived or real threats.
Look Funny on a Horse
The thing about managing from a place of fearfulness or from the position of a stereotypical fearless leader is that it is inherently weak. One of my favorite quotes that cuts right to the heart of this idea comes from Adlai Stevenson II:
“It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”
Even if you try to hide your fear, those around you will see through your ruse. The truth is that the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect is continuously at play, and we are only as good as the expectations that are put on us. If we think we look funny on a horse, everyone will know that’s what we believe. Railing against that perception isn’t going to change it, so we need to move onto the next point of inspiration.
The Absence of Fear vs. Conquering Fear
Instead of fearing that we look funny on a horse, leaders need to take advice from my next quotation, which comes from Nelson Mandela: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
The truth is that fear, while it may be an undesirable emotion in life and in work, serves a vital purpose—to keep us safe. The feeling keeps us on our toes and tells us when it may be time to beat a quick exit, stand our ground, or fight for what we need. Lacking fear in the workplace or in life could cost you considerably.
So what’s the best way to deal with fear? Address it head-on, look it in the eye, and understand it. Perhaps even thank it for showing up to keep you safe and on your toes—but recognize it for what it is. By addressing fear and not avoiding it, you can turn your fear into a source of understanding and even triumph. You can conquer it.
Lessons from a Young Adult Author
Inspirational quotations can (and should) come from anywhere—as in this case, even from authors who write mainly for young adults. Beth Revis is the author of the popular series Across the Universe, and she offers an astute insight into power and leadership:
“Power isn’t control at all—power is strength and giving that strength to others. A leader isn’t someone who forces others to make him stronger; a leader is someone willing to give his strength to others that they may have the strength to stand on their own.”
In positions of leadership—especially in business—it’s vital to offer your strength and honesty to your employees and coworkers. By conquering your fears and facing them, you can turn facing your fears into a strength and offer that strength and insight to your coworkers and direct reports. Sharing your strength and the lessons you have learned by facing down your fears can be an incredible act of honesty, transparency, and authenticity—plus, it can truly empower your people to continue to do great work.
Leadership Advice from a President
This of course leads me to my next favorite quotation about leadership and managing fear, which comes from our 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan:
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”
How you get your people to show up matters. How they show up is primarily determined by how we as leaders show up. Do we act like leadership robots, behaving as if everything is always fine instead of being our authentic, open, honest, and even fearful selves? If that’s the case, you can be certain that your coworkers and direct reports are not showing up as their whole, authentic, and most excellent selves. In fact, it probably means that they’re showing up as frightened, depleted, depressed shells of themselves looking for the nearest exit. If you want to inspire your employees, you need to be inspired yourself—and that means bringing your whole, genuine self to the table.
Words of Wisdom from a Civil Rights Leader
Conquering fear means knowing ourselves and knowing where we stand, knowing what matters to us in times of great upheaval, and knowing what we are willing to sacrifice. This is why one of my favorite quotations about leadership comes from the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Being at our best in times of ease is simple. Our best flows naturally from us, and we can genuinely interact with those around us to create a world that feels connected, stable, and whole. Times of struggle or challenge test us the most. When we’re under stress, we aren’t always able to tap into our best selves—usually because we are fearful. Recognizing our humanity and imperfection in challenging moments is key to becoming a genuinely fearless leader. Being fearless doesn’t mean not experiencing fear, never asking for help, or keeping our concerns to ourselves. Instead, it means bearing our humanity with grace and understanding where we stand during moments of difficulty. Bringing this kind of spirit to your leadership role is empowering for both your reports and your coworkers.
The Truth about Inspirational Quotations
While these are the quotations that stand out for me, they don’t necessarily have to resonate with you. These are the words that I find help me in times of difficulty or struggle and remind me to come back to my genuine, honest, and authentic self in order to create a space where I can be the best leader possible. On your leadership journey, it’s important to find quotations that make sense for you, your personal experiences, and how you see and experience the world around you. There are plenty of resources that can help you find inspirational sayings to help you navigate the ups and downs of leadership. Choose things that speak directly to your heart, give you a new perspective, or even make you laugh. It’s important that as leaders, we remember our humanity and relate to others in ways that help mitigate fear, anxiety, and angst. Fear is merely one more tool we can use to help keep our businesses, our employees, and our families safe and secure as we continue to move forward in our work lives and our home lives.