Strategy is hard when you’re scared

Thinking long is hard when things are short.

Geoff Wilson

Have you ever been in a circumstance where short-term shocks completely derail long-term plans?  You might see it in your family life when an illness strikes, or in your professional life when the loss of a customer leads to wholesale panic. On average, we are poorly prepared to stay the course during adversity.  We get defensive.  We get scared.

Part of this is a fact of our minds:  We narrow our focus during times of strife.  When life gets short, we close our ranks; we narrow our circles of friends.  When life is long again, we expand our horizons and think big.  I wrote about that a while back in this blog post.  In it, I outlined how shared vision of the future prevents small thinking.

In this case, however, I am posing the question a little more narrowly:

Can you be strategic when you are scared?

You are scared of losing your job, so what do you do?  You are scared of an economic downturn, so how do you manage your business?  You are scared of…wait for it…being wrong, so how does that affect your decision making?

We all respond to fear a little differently.  Some of us throw the problem on our backs and carry on.  Some of us wait for somebody else to do it.  Some of us simply freeze.  The traditional model of fear reaction that most of us know is “fight or flight,” but I’m a fan of a model that was proposed by Dave Grossman in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in Modern Society. In that book, Grossman outlines the four possible responses to fear: Fight, flight, posture, and submit.

We fight when we actively take on the fear with countering force or influence.

We flee when we actively avoid the fear by putting distance between us and it.

We posture when we attempt to show our strength without actually doing anything.

We submit when we open up our soft underbelly to the fear and let the fear win. We freeze.

And, here’s the rub…most of us are wired to posture. That is, we are wired to figuratively inflate our chest, yell a battle cry, and fire our guns into the air.  In a business context, we are wired to schedule more meetings, produce more presentations and analysis, and show our boss or board how much activity we are producing in the face of adversity.

We aren’t wired to fight.  We aren’t wired to resort to violent action in the face of adversity.  In the professional context, we aren’t wired to take action on winning that next customer when we’ve just lost one.

We are wired to posture…to explain the situation (sometimes violently) vs. solving it.

And, we are wired to submit…to become victims of circumstance…to freeze in the face of fear.

And, that makes strategy hard when fear is involved.  Keeping our eyes on a long-term strategy when short-term shocks upend the organization is the stuff of exemplary leaders.

We live in interesting times.  I have clients dealing with the bucking bronco of current trade policy uncertainty.  I have clients projecting the next recession constantly. I have clients worried about finding the talent required to carry out their aspirations. And of course, I have clients dealing with their own, very personal fears that relate to turbulence in their own personal lives.

I think the most basic piece of advice I can offer is this:  Despite what so many attempt to brand as “fearless leadership” or “fearless strategy,” nobody lacks fear.  There is no such thing.  Even the most emotionless automaton of a corporate executive is afraid of being exposed about something.  If you can admit your fear, and if you can determine whether your response to that fear is actually productive–am I fighting or fleeing vs. posturing or freezing–you will be far ahead of the game.

If you can keep your eyes on the horizon while you walk through a bed of thorns, you will set yourself apart from the pack.

Strategy is hard when you are scared.

What do you think:  Does fear get in the way of long term strategy? 

1 reply
  1. Weronika
    Weronika says:

    It was honour to work with Jennieration. Ella”s creativity is indeed fearless” and inspirational. I am in awe of how Jennifer has nurtured her daughter”s fearless thinking”. Could this herald a revolution in education? Thank you for this unique and memorable memorable opportunity!

    Reply

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