Fear of Failure Is The Ultimate Motivator For Many Leaders

Fear of failure, however defined, can be a cornerstone to success if kept in perspective. It also can freeze decision makers in their tracks. Having no fear can be an even greater danger! Most of us grow up with some insecurities…you know, how we look, not being as good at some things as others, not being included in the ‘popular’ groups and for some, not having what some others have.  Kid stuff, right?  For me, whatever insecurities I had in my youth all faded, reemerging in adulthood as a distilled but dominant fear of failure. I’ve ‘enjoyed’ this motivating force ever since.

Entrepreneurs seem to have this same insecurity in common although some have repackaged it and prefer to verbalize it as a fear of going broke. To me, fear of failure, however defined, can be a cornerstone to success if kept in perspective; I’ve also seen it freeze decision makers in their tracks. Having no fear can be an even greater danger!

You have your own experiences; here are a few of mine. The first nine years of my career were spent with two Fortune 500 companies. Time after time since then, I’ve benefitted from the knowledge I gained by working for them. It seemed to me that with that knowledge I was ready to take another career step and was eventually successful in being named president of a regional manufacturing company. Unfortunately, I was so focused on landing a job with the president title that I failed miserably in vetting the company. In the first few years my fear of failure was tested far too often!

First experience: once on board I became fully aware of the company’s condition.  A major order had been placed on indefinite hold and a new program had been taken off the launch pad by a prospective customer. We had too many employees, our overhead expenses were excessive and we were losing money.  I at least had enough smarts to know what had to be done and I did it…layoffs and austerity budgets to get us to a very lean breakeven, which eventually served us very well as the business ramped up continuously beginning about twelve months later.

Second experience: in the early months at the same company I was advised by the accounting department that there was a chance we might not be able to meet payroll. When I worked in the large companies I never thought about where the cash came from to cover my pay. I received a check, I endorsed it, I deposited it and life was good. What a wakeup call! We figured out a few things to do and they worked: offering significant discounts for immediate payment of large receivables, delaying other payments but advising rescheduled dates, etc. We got through it.

Here’s the uncomfortable prologue to both sagas; the actions I took were motivated by my personal fear of failure and the harm that would come to my reputation if the company did not survive. How selfish.

Ever since then, working with over 100 enterprises, I believe and I ‘preach’ that our obligation as leaders is to perpetuate the entity beyond ourselves and that our fear of failure should be for the enterprise and not for us. I also share that each time I have overcome an obstacle which otherwise would have resulted in failure, I promise myself to never let the same circumstances provoke the same fear.  Next time the challenge must be at a higher and more complex level.

Now, as I mentor those willing to listen I find it so rewarding to share my experiences from the brink.  If by doing so I am able to help someone avoid a crisis or manage through it with less fear, in small part, I have given back.  Soon enough they’ll find another brink!

Lesson learned; I am better for the failures I have faced.

Read more: 3 Epic Strategy Failures And How To Combat Them

Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.