Fear has an amazing power.  It can stop us in our tracks.  It inhibits us from asking for what we need – emotionally, financially or otherwise – from friends, family and employers. Yet not asking closes the door on choice and possibility.

The fear instinct is essential to our survival as part of the fight or flight reaction. But It is also a feeling, like happiness, at the intersection of mind and heart, where “free choice” is put to the test. The folks we thank for their service – combat soldiers, fire fighters and law enforcement officers – operate in situations where “clear and present danger” is commonplace.  Yet, somehow – facing tremendous risks – they act with focus and intent to accomplish their mission. 

How is it even possible not to be paralyzed by fear when operating in the face of unknown dangers? Perhaps the more important question is, what do we lose when we allow fear to paralyze us?

There is no such thing as a “sure thing.”  Apple founder Steve Jobs took incredible business risks.  Some resulted in amazing technological achievements that moved society forward by leaps and bounds.  Other, terrible ideas crashed and burned.  Jeff Bezos reengineered consumer commerce and the product-purchasing supply chain, toiling long in the red before Amazon became the colossus it is today.  Business leaders who saw the path of “no pain, no gain” could fill textbooks full of risk and benefit case studies.

Want to push yourself personally and grow professionally?  Watch business leaders closely to see how they lean into decisions that involve risk.  While some luck is involved, so is the active decision to face fear.  In those moments, you can observe whether leaders and their organizations will thrive or miss opportunity.  It’s how some of the most successful build their careers – by spotting risk and opportunity, looking inward at their own fears, yet not letting anxiety dictate decisions.

When he founded his business – a global communication agency – eight years ago, Peter Finn decided that taking risks would be among the key firmwide values embraced by his organization.  Risk as a business value is seen as counterintuitive.  Businesses look to minimize risk and maximize upside, but, year after year, Finn’s agency prospers and brings aboard like-minded people – bold thinkers who recognize that without embracing risk, benefits to colleagues and clients would be out of reach.    

Here are five points to consider if you’re looking to find like-minded business leaders and communities where you can stretch yourself, tackle fear and take a quantum career jump:

  1. Follow-Me!  There are plenty of business books that tout “Lead like a Marine” (or Seal, Navy Pilot or Paratrooper).  “Follow me” isn’t just a military code; it’s a mindset that most good leaders share.  They roll up their sleeves and make things happen.  These mission-oriented leaders are persistent and value others who are “in the game.” They are risk-takers who recognize that they must take responsibility for others’ wellbeing. 
  • We Are in This Together!  Don’t just follow a leader who is bold. Also consider whether you are important to their mission – a partner.  It’s fine for the founder or leader to be “fearless,” but make sure you’re not “cannon fodder” for their mission. You are not expendable.  Your fear level drops a few notches if you know that the leader thinks about the wellbeing of the community.  Does the leader ask for people’s counsel – and listen?  Does the leader blame others or say, “my bad”?  Responsibility is a hallmark of the leader who recognizes that to be a risk-taker, you must build a community of like-minded people who help shape the direction taken, and therefore, have courage because “we’re in this together.”
  • Let’s Have Some Fun!  Ever jumped from an airplane?  Bungee jumped?  Risk strikes fear in the hearts of most thoughtful people.  Does the leader set an example for others and go first out that airplane door?  Good leaders make it fun.  They don’t shame or pressure folks to do things that are audacious without some encouragement or going first. They know how to create community spirit that spreads whatever fear exists among community members in order to defuses anxiety.  Fear is infectious.  So is fun.
  • Make it Mean Something!  When a soldier, police officer or fire fighter enters a danger zone, they have a reason – a mission that is greater than they are.  Does your organization seek to make a difference?  Is it just about revenue?  Would you take a risk to improve your family’s wellbeing or improve the human condition?  Reinvent technology that would help make people’s lives better?  Line your bosses’ pockets?  Find what matters to you and live it – even if you need to take some risk.
  • Think About How You Will Feel.  Ever wish you had said something or stood up to a bully? Risk and fear can paralyze.  Burt Giges, M.D., Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association, advises top athletes to examine the importance of self-acceptance in their daily lives and reflect on how they will feel afterward when an opportunity passes them by.  Relieved?  Disappointed?  Imagination and reflection are powerful tools.  Don’t let what you’re feeling at a given time and place stop you from making a well-thought-out decision.  Fear is not a reason not to do something. 

Overcoming fear and embracing risk is not always required to succeed.  What do you do when you want a special assignment or a new task/role? Do you raise a hand, ask for help, or assume the answer might be “no” and spare yourself from that rejection?  Ever leave a job for another in order to avoid asking for something?  If so, you are letting imagination – fear-inspired – determine your action.  STOP.

Fear is like emotional cement.  Looking at the short road ahead as he faced the end of his adventure, Steve Jobs said: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”