Rule 12: Harness Your Fear to Sharpen Your Professional Judgment

Rule 12: Harness Your Fear to Sharpen Your Professional Judgment


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Do you experience professional fear?

Yes: 80 percent

No: 20 percent

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Many supposed experts, from the gung ho success gurus to elite advertising executives, preach that success requires "No Fear." On the surface, that slogan would seem to have some appeal. Certainly, many people are paralyzed into inaction or retreat by their fears. So how do invincible executives deal with fear? Do they experience it at all?

Macho Man and Superwoman?

I expected most of the executives I interviewed to say that they feel little or no fear in the workplace. After all, these people made it to the top, so they should have nothing to fear. Instead, I found that four out of five invincible executives acknowledge significant fear in performing their jobs. Interestingly, the women I interviewed tended to say that fear was counterproductive, and that they tried to suppress it wherever possible. The men, while by no means unanimous, most often said that they "used" fear to sharpen their skills. I attribute the difference between men and women in this regard to a greater concern by women that they will look weak if they show any fear. It is still tougher for a woman to get to the top, so fear suppression is a survival skill for many women.

Fear of Failure

Executives with staying power do not fear specific events or outcomes. Their fears are as unfocused as their career plans. In fact, when I asked top professionals what they feared, the phrase that I heard over and over in my interviews was a generalized "fear of failure." Senator Bob Dole used that phrase, as did Doug Bain of Boeing, Bruno Schmitter of Hydromat, and former U.S. Attorney Ed Dowd—who fears "failure in the courtroom" at every trial. Dave Ruf, the outgoing and hard-charging CEO of Burns & McDonnell, told me that, in order to be an effective CEO, "you have to run scared all of the time."

Hendrik Verfaillie, former CEO of Monsanto, summed it up this way: "One of the biggest drivers for many successful professionals is the fear of failure. And it's not so much the fear of the consequences—just the fear of failure. You want to be successful, and not being successful is almost unthinkable. It scares the hell out of me." Similarly, Barrett Toan, CEO of Express Scripts, said that "the fear of failure is probably the prime motivator for me. I think it is true for more people than you might think. You take a risk ... and you're really motivated to succeed, not for the glory of the success but for the relief of not failing." Tom O'Neill of Parsons Brinckerhoff echoed these sentiments when he told me, "If we're all honest with each other, there is a fear of failure."

Fear of scandal is also a big motivator these days. Top executives look at what happened to the CEOs and top managers of Enron, ImClone, Tyco International, Arthur Andersen, ADM, Columbia HCA—even the battle that Carly Fiorina had with Walter Hewlett over the merger with Compaq—and they realize that, despite their competence and intelligence, (1) their careers are at the mercy of those who work for them, (2) their careers could be torpedoed immediately by one unhappy customer or ruthless competitor, and (3) their careers are one lightening-bolt scandal from being over. If a company does badly financially, or worse yet, finds itself the target of a whistleblower and/or criminal investigation (insider trading, antitrust violations, toxic waste dumping, accounting irregularities—there are so many possibilities), it is the senior manager who takes the blame, even if he or she was not directly involved in the factual scenario that led to the scandal.

"The shareholders hold the CEO responsible for everything that goes on in the company. If I knew about it, it is my fault. If I did not know about it, I should have. In that sense, the CEO has less control over his career than anyone else in the company," the CEO of a software company told me during a criminal investigation several years back.

Recently I defended a major manufacturing corporation in a high-profile criminal investigation. The news of the scandal had already been the subject of a "60 Minutes" segment. I met with a senior executive and several of his staff members to discuss the status of the matter. The senior executive had no involvement in the scandal other than being the fifth-level supervisor over the people who had allegedly committed the criminal acts—i.e., there were four supervisors between him and the alleged culprits. The executive had never even met the people who were being accused of the crime. At the end of the meeting, as everyone was leaving, he asked me to stay a minute. When everyone else was gone, this man—a gung ho ex-marine and Vietnam veteran—put his hand around my shoulder and softly said: "Tom, please don't let my family be publicly embarrassed. I have worked too hard to get here. I don't want to leave in shame."

What I saw was the fear of failure dominating the mind of a decorated war hero. Fortunately, the government dropped the investigation of the company after a few months, and this ex-marine went on to retire with his pride intact. But I saw how totally the fear of failure can dominate the minds of strong people. That means you should not fear fear itself.