Fear governs greatness. Over time, I’ve realized that my fears have prodded me forward. They’re my friends. Yet when they were too great to bear, they held me back. Speaking as an entrepreneur and the daughter of an entrepreneur, I’d like to speak honestly about something we business leaders often don’t address: the role of fear in greatness.
We know that fear is a biological byproduct of our body’s adrenaline, brought on by the deeply ingrained “fight or flight” instinct. While this makes sense, it’s not helpful on the front lines. After all, we have to work through the fear of things we can never run from — like mergers, takeovers, and competitors with better funding. If only it were as easy as running from the fear of failure, or letting people down, right?
We all have things pushing us to feel insecure, inadequate, or intensely wrong. Marketers thrive on this possibility, and bad bosses exploit it.
I like to get out of my present culture to gather inspiration for overcoming fear. One of my favorite examples of handling fear and transforming it into power is from Alexander the Great.
Alexander was not expected to achieve anything of note. His father, Philip II, was never accepted in Athens and raised him to revere the wisdom of Greek Golden Age ideals. His mother, a Thracian princess, taught him snake worshipping tribal wisdom. Thus, Alexander was a product of conflicting worldviews, like many of us. It was snake cult against Plato: a showdown in the dustbowl of Macedon.
To help navigate these intellectual chasms, Philip engaged Aristotle as Alexander’s principal tutor. Aristotle was the “empiricist” of philosophers — he believed in achieving happiness by observable facts. While Plato and Socrates pointed to ideals, Aristotle pointed to observation. Perhaps Alexander found his compass in Aristotle’s empiricism: to do is divine.
Not only did Alexander far exceed Philip’s conquests — destroying the Persian Empire that had long plagued Greece — but he also expanded further into Asia Minor than ever before. His legacy of trade and ties to the broader world initiated a level of prosperity and shared knowledge that continues to resonate in our modern era.
For leaders intent on ruling our worlds like Alexander, we have to find ways to tame the internal conflicts everyone inherits. We have to live beyond what our culture finds possible and push our desires into deeds. We must teach fear its place to do that: as our tutor, not our terror.
Failure is fine counsel, actually. We learn from it. But fear is not a good advisor; we learn nothing from things we won’t dare.
I’m curious about how other business leaders handle fear — what works for you when you and your teams are caught between “want to” and “scared of”?